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Baptist leader convicted of swindling; Minister found guilty of racketeering, theft


LARGO, Fla. -- The head of the United States' largest black religious organization was found guilty yesterday of swindling millions of dollars from companies trying to do business with its members and of stealing donations intended to rebuild churches in the South destroyed by arson.

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the powerful president of the National Baptist Convention USA, was convicted of racketeering and grand theft in Pinellas County Circuit Court yesterday afternoon after a monthlong trial that mixed law and religion and, his lawyers said, was an attack on the separation of church and state.

The same jury refused to convict his aide and co-defendant, Bernice Edwards, on a single racketeering charge, causing Edwards to break down in tears when the verdict was read.

"It's been so long," she said.

Prosecutors argued that she and Lyons had used nonexistent membership lists and the good name of the Baptist convention to steer more than $4 million from corporations eager to do business with black communities, and that they had used the money to finance their lavish lifestyle.

What Lyons and Edwards did is "beyond hypocrisy," said Bill Loughery, the assistant state attorney.

"Somewhere along the line, he traded the Good Book for the bank book. That's what this case is all about."

Lyons seemed emotionless as the verdict was read. His conviction on the single racketeering charge and two counts of grand theft could carry a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.

The jury, which deliberated one full day and part of two others, had its verdict ready by midmorning, but the decision was not read until yesterday afternoon because of a mysterious e-mail message sent to two Tampa Bay television stations that seemed to point to jury misconduct.

Edwards' lawyer had moved for a mistrial minutes before the verdict was read, asking Judge Susan Schaeffer to throw the unknown verdict out because of the e-mail, which claimed that a juror had openly discussed deliberations with a friend.

The e-mail included details identifying the juror. When the judge questioned the juror under oath, she denied having discussed the case.

As the judge tried to decide what to do, a second e-mail message, apparently from the same person, arrived saying only that the information about the juror had been secondhand.

That seemed to help the judge make up her mind. She said she could not delay the verdict for such a flimsy reason.

At least two members of the jury had tears in their eyes as the verdict was read. Later, a member of a small group of supporters who sat behind Lyons throughout the trial, stood up and told the judge, "We remain people of faith."

The judge replied, "So do I."

Both defendants were charged with one count of racketeering, involving several instances of promising to sell nonexistent lists and access to what they said were the convention's 8.5 million members. Prosecutors said that figure was grossly inflated and might be more like 1 million.

Prosecutors also said that Lyons had stolen most of the $240,000 donated to his organization by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, money that was supposed to be passed along to the black churches that had been burned down.

Throughout the 28-day trial, prosecutors documented specific instances of what they say was theft, claiming that the minister used the good name of his organization to steal millions.

Throughout the trial, Lyons and his lawyers predicted that God would deliver him and Edwards from what they called the persecution of the state.

As the all-white jury of five women and one man began deliberations on Thursday afternoon, Lyons, Edwards and a group of about 25 associates joined hands in the courthouse hallway and sang "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Then a supporter and convention member, the Rev. Charles Emery of Gary, Ind., led the group in a rousing prayer.

When he had finished, Lyons' wife, Deborah Lyons, hugged a weeping Edwards. It was the actions of Mrs. Lyons that led to the investigation of her husband's business dealings and lifestyle. In July 1997, Mrs. Lyons set fire to a $700,000 waterfront home that her husband had bought with Edwards.

Mrs. Lyons was sentenced to five months' probation in the incident, but afterward she said she did not suspect her husband of having an affair with Edwards and stood by her husband throughout the trial.

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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