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Irvin set to go solo in defense of Lyons'

The attorney tells a U.S. district judge that he is all that remains from a dream team of lawyers.

By MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 1998


TAMPA -- In a hotel ballroom seven months ago, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons unveiled a Cadillac defense team of big name attorneys. His dream team even boasted its own public relations firm.

A Ministry Questioned: more coverage from the St. Petersburg Times.

The Cadillac is running on fumes.

During a court hearing here Thursday, it became clear that Lyons' fate now rests chiefly on the shoulders of Grady Irvin, a 35-year-old attorney with hardly any criminal defense experience.

For Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the stakes are high. Under sentencing guidelines, he faces up to 26 years in prison if convicted of the 54 federal charges and three state charges against him.

"As it stands at this point, there's no guarantee that Rev. Lyons is going to have an attorney in the state or federal case other than me," Irvin told U.S. District Court Judge Henry Lee Adams, citing Lyons' weakened financial state.

Describing himself as Lyons' "principal" lawyer, Irvin said he alone is doing "the bulk of the work" in the state and federal cases, each built on a daunting maze of banking and other financial records, each involving a series of complicated business deals between large corporations and the National Baptist Convention.

Irvin disclosed the withered state of Lyons' legal defense in asking Adams for more time to prepare Lyons' defense for the federal trial.

Lyons and two aides are accused of a wide range of frauds, money-laundering and conspiracy. Adams, a judge known for moving cases quickly, told attorneys Thursday he wanted to set Lyons' trial for December, one month before Lyons is scheduled for trial on state racketeering and grand theft charges.

But Irvin argued that it would be "almost physically impossible" for him to prepare for both cases in time. Forcing him to do so, Irvin said, would be unfair to Lyons.

Adams set the trial for April, but he warned against any further delays. "Once I set this case, it's going to take probably an act of Congress to get it off my (April) calendar," he said. The trial is expected to last seven weeks. The state trial, scheduled to begin Jan. 4, is expected to last at least a month, attorneys said.

In a hotel ballroom in February, Irvin announced that famed lawyer F. Lee Bailey would be part of a powerhouse defense team that boasted a century of legal experience.

Since that optimistic start the team has struggled.

In May, experienced lawyer Anthony S. Battaglia quit the team, saying he found it too draining and cumbersome to coordinate legal work with the rest of the team. By summer, Bailey's participation in the case seemed to be minimal. He has attended as many news conferences (two) as court hearings.

From the start, Lyons said he didn't know how he would pay his legal fees. He formed a legal defense fund, solicited donations from his church members and tapped into his personal savings.

The evidence of financial strain is clear. One sign? It took some six months for Lyons' defense team just to pick up the thousands of pages of discovery material from state prosecutors.

Another sign: Irvin is Lyons' only attorney in the federal case. (For now, Lyons still has four attorneys representing him in the state case.)

Making matters worse, Lyons' bank accounts and real estate are now frozen by federal authorities.

Last week, Lyons' supporters tried to alleviate some of the pressure by raising funds from tens of thousands of Baptists at the annual NBC meeting in Kansas City, Mo. Some senior NBC leaders there expressed concern about the quality of Lyons' legal defense.

Others, like the Rev. E.V. Hill, a Lyons' supporter from Los Angeles, called for donations to provide Lyons with "the best legal" defense money can buy.

"Lawyers nowadays charge you to say "Good morning,' " Hill told the crowd as assistants passed buckets to collect cash for Lyons. "He does not have the money."

It's unclear how much was raised in Kansas City.

Said Irvin on Thursday: "It's none of your business."

 

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