Fla. minister gets turn to answer his accusers; Trial testimony paints Lyons as high-living, swindling Baptist leader


LARGO, Fla. -- After two weeks of testimony about luxury shopping sprees, hidden love affairs and secret bank accounts, lawyers for the Rev. Henry Lyons open their defense of the embattled Baptist leader today.

Lyons, 57, and his alleged mistress, Bernice Edwards, are charged with swindling more than $4 million from corporations that hoped to do business with the National Baptist Convention USA, one of the country's largest African-American denominations.

Lyons is president of the group, while Edwards served as its public relations director.

Lyons took the stand briefly yesterday after the jury was dismissed for the day, testifying about a convention membership list he allegedly tried to sell.

His attorneys have claimed Lyons made legitimate efforts to market credit cards, life insurance policies and burial services for several companies, capitalizing on his leadership role to give what amounted to a celebrity endorsement for their products.

But prosecutors called dozens of witnesses to show that Lyons used the millions he received from the companies to finance a posh waterfront home, expensive cars, a 5.56-carat diamond ring and other luxury gifts for several women who allegedly were his lovers.

Lyons purchased a mink coat and hat for the convention's director of meetings, Brenda Harris, with whom he was having an affair, a former convention aide testified.

"The first day that I came to work for Brenda, she was giving me an overview of what it was she did," Renee Fagans testified. "Her exact words were: 'I'm having an affair with the president and we're in love.' "

In some of the most dramatic testimony, Bonita Henderson, also a former Lyons aide, said Lyons was her lover and that he paid her $150,000 from a secret account after she quit her job and ended their affair.

When Lyons was campaigning to become the convention's president in 1994, Edwards told Henderson a victory would mean "we were going to make a lot of money," Henderson testified.

After Lyons won, he struck a deal to sell a list of the convention's members to Globe Life Insurance Co. of Oklahoma, which hoped to market policies to the membership, Henderson testified.

Lyons told the company the membership was 8.5 million, although the only lists on hand contained about 15,000 names, Henderson testified. The pair solved the problem by compiling a phony list using a computer program that contained telephone numbers and addresses from around the country, she said.

But the effort collapsed when the company received complaints from people who received the mailings, including an imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Lyons also took nearly $250,000 from the Anti-Defamation League, saying the money would go to rebuild black churches that were burned down across the South in a rash of hate crimes.

Prosecutors produced evidence showing Lyons gave less than $40,000 to burned churches, while depositing $60,000 in a personal savings account.

In what may be the key to the case, Pinellas County State Attorney's investigator David Kurash testified that Lyons routinely took checks from the corporations made out to the National Baptist Convention and deposited them in a secret bank account that he guarded carefully.

If convicted, Lyons could be sentenced to 30 years in prison. He also must stand trial on federal charges this spring. His attorneys would not say whether he will testify before the jury.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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