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Baptist Leader Convicted of Racketeering

Fraud: President of one of the nation's largest black denominations is found guilty of bilking more than $4 million from companies and groups.

February 28, 1999|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LARGO, Fla. — The president of one of the nation's largest African American denominations was found guilty Saturday of racketeering, convicted of bilking more than $4 million from companies seeking to sell products to the group's members.

The Rev. Henry Lyons, 57, of the National Baptist Convention USA was also found guilty of two counts of grand theft in connection with $244,000 given to him from the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith to rebuild burned-out black churches throughout the South. Prosecutors said Lyons pocketed most of that money.

Surrounded by a coterie of supporters, Lyons left Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court without comment after the verdict. The six-person, all-white jury took about 15 hours to sift through a month of testimony.

Free on $100,000 bond, Lyons could be sentenced to as many as nine years in prison. He also faces trial in April on 54 federal charges of bank fraud, wire fraud, extortion and money laundering.

A co-defendant, Bernice V. Edwards, 42, a convicted embezzler who served as public relations director for the convention, was found innocent of the racketeering charge. She was not charged with grand theft but faces a number of fraud charges in federal court.

The case against Lyons, a respected figure among black Baptists across the U.S. and the pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in nearby St. Petersburg, was described by prosecutors as a simple case of greed.

'Their Creed Was Greed'

Falsely claiming to represent a membership of 8.5 million, they said, Lyons defrauded major corporations that paid him millions of dollars for mailing lists through which they hoped to market life insurance policies, credit cards and funeral plots. Prosecutors had accused Lyons of using the bilked money to finance a series of love affairs replete with expensive jewelry, luxury cars and lavish vacations.

"Their creed was greed," prosecutor Jim Hellickson told jurors in closing arguments earlier last week. "They had their fancy cars. They had their fancy vacations to Lake Tahoe, to Hawaii a couple of times. They had their jewelry. They had the real estate."

Lyons called the prosecution racist, and his attorneys summoned witnesses who insisted that those outside the black community could not understand the license traditionally granted ministers to adopt a comfortable, even wealthy, lifestyle.

The defense argued that at issue were failed business dealings, not crimes. "This case should really be about corporate deals that didn't work out," attorney Grady Irvin said. "Not enough profit was made by corporations. But nobody held a gun to their head."

Among those who testified was noted Los Angeles preacher E.V. Hill, pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, who chaired the convention's investigation of the allegations and found no wrongdoing.

The state and federal probes of Lyons were sparked by a 1997 arson at a $700,000 waterfront home in Florida that Lyons and Edwards had purchased together. Lyons' wife, Deborah, admitted setting the fire after she learned about the purchase and suspected that her husband and Edwards were having an affair.

Deborah Lyons, who pleaded guilty to arson and was placed on probation, later recanted her suspicions and faithfully attended the trial. Edwards denied the affair.

Many of Lyons' parishioners also backed him, as did the leadership of the National Baptist Convention, which gave the charismatic preacher a vote of confidence and several thousand dollars for his defense fund.

Lyons did not take the witness stand. But Edwards did, admitting that she spent money with abandon but insisting that she earned it. She also admitted a conviction in Milwaukee for embezzling funds from a school for at-risk children. She denied any romantic ties to Lyons.

In the trial, several other women were linked to Lyons, including a onetime official of the San Diego convention bureau whom the pastor has acknowledged was his mistress. After Lyons met Brenda Harris in 1994 and hired her as director of conventions, they jointly bought a $340,000 house in Nashville and vacationed together in New York. On one trip, Lyons bought her a mink coat and hat, Harris testified.

Another self-described former lover, aide Bonita Henderson, told jurors that the Globe Life Insurance Co. of Oklahoma paid $400,000 for what Lyons promised was a list of more than 8 million names. But the Baptist Convention actually had a list of only 15,000 names.

So, Henderson told the jury, she and Lyons compiled a phony list using a computer program that contained telephone numbers and addresses from around the country. They tried to purge the list of non-Baptists by editing out ethnic names, such as those ending in "ski," for example.

After the mailings went out, a Globe executive testified, the complaints poured in, including one from the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. "It was the quickest and most negative response that I have ever received in my 27 years of direct marketing," said Globe Vice President George Burke.

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