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Ex-Va. leader decries Lyons


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 16, 1998

As his Richmond radio audience listened, former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder offered one of the harshest assessments yet of the National Baptist Convention USA's leader.
Douglas Wilder
[AP photo: Scott K. Brown]

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons is "a sham and a shylock," he said.

"That kind of money that this man has wasted and spent . . . he should be denounced for what he is," Wilder said this week during his popular WRVA-AM talk show. He "pilloried the people."

Wilder, who in 1989 became the nation's first elected African-American governor, last month was named president of Virginia Union University, a historically black school founded more than a century ago by Baptists.

Lyons was appointed to the board of trustees of that Richmond school in 1994, a distinction that comes with being president of the National Baptist Convention.

One day after Wilder's radio comments this week, Lyons quit the board.

It remained unclear Wednesday whether Lyons quit voluntarily or was forced to resign. Last year, under fire from NAACP leaders, Lyons resigned from the NAACP's national board.
Henry Lyons
[Times photo: Jim Stem]

Lyons, accused in state and federal court of using the convention to launder money and finance a lavish lifestyle, had no comment on Virginia Union, according to a written statement from his attorney, Grady Irvin.

Wilder, who takes over as Virginia Union's president in two weeks, could not be reached. During the weekly radio show, however, Wilder told a caller that he already had been assured Lyons would be removed from the school's board.

Virginia Union's 30-member board of trustees meets three or four times a year, but Lyons has not attended those gatherings, Wilder said.

Wilder's comments followed other indications that support for Lyons may be eroding.

The Virginia state branch of the convention recently issued a statement distancing itself from the Baptist leader.

The statement, adopted unanimously during the state's convention, urged church leaders to "disassociate themselves from un-Christian behavior and set in motion responsible rules and regulations, with proper checks and balances, that will ensure the highest ideals and standards of conduct," the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Wilder praised the Virginia Baptists for their statement. Their silence, he told his radio audience, would have suggested consent.

Wilder himself graduated from Virginia Union University in 1951. The school, which once was housed at the site of a former slave jail, currently has 1,700 students.

The 67-year-old Wilder is the grandson of slaves. First elected to the Virginia Senate in the late 1960s, Wilder, a Democrat, has worked as a lawyer and teacher since he left the governor's office in 1994. He made a brief run for president in 1992 and remains active behind the scenes in the commonwealth's political maneuvering.

Wilder's remarks come only days after Lyons and convention employee Brenda Harris pleaded innocent to federal charges of bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy.

Their co-defendant, Bernice Edwards, has yet to enter a plea. On Wednesday, the Milwaukee woman made a brief appearance in Tampa's federal courthouse, but her arraignment was again put off.

Minutes before a hearing scheduled for noon, Edwards, known for her taste for expensive diamonds and designer clothes, arrived at the courthouse in the rain. A dozen reporters and photographers chased her into the building. They shouted questions. "Are you trying to sell your jewelry?"

Edwards said nothing.

In a small hearing room, Edwards took notes in a personal organizer until the judge began asking her routine questions. Had Edwards seen the charges against her? "Yes, I have, your honor," Edwards said firmly. Did she understand them? "Yes I do, your honor."

Tony Black, an attorney in the state case against Edwards, requested a delay, saying Edwards has not formally hired Black's firm to represent her in the federal case. Black's partner, Bill Jung, has handled much of Edwards' legal work in the past few months, Black said. Jung left for a European vacation days before Edwards was indicted.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Lawson objected to the delay.

Lawson suggested a shortage of cash was preventing Edwards from signing a deal with her defense team. If Edwards is indigent, Lawson suggested, she can be assigned a public defender.
Bernice Edwards receives a foreclosure notice from process server Russell Napier, on a house she bought with Henry Lyons.
[Times photo: Andrew Innerarity]

Calling Edwards' need for a delay "not frivolous or unjustified," U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth A. Jenkins reset the arraignment to next Wednesday.

Leaving, Edwards again was chased by reporters shouting questions. She ignored them.

But someone else was waiting.

"Are you Bernice Edwards?" a man demanded, shoving a piece of paper into Edwards' hands.

The man was a process server, trying to give Edwards notice of the foreclosure claim filed against her this week by a savings and loan company.

World Savings and Loan alleges that it is owed more than $450,000 it loaned to the Rev. Henry J. Lyons to purchase a waterfront Tierra Verde home he owns with Edwards.

Edwards climbed into a waiting car and Black, the lawyer, took the foreclosure notice.
-- Times staff researcher Jerry Nagle contributed to this report, as did the Associated Press.

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