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Fanning the flames

Newspaper, authorities turn up heat on black Baptist leader

Embattled St. Petersburg, Fla., pastor Henry J. Lyons has been busy putting out fires. He is under criminal investigation by state and federal authorities for his financial dealings as president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. (NBCUSA), one of the nation's largest predominantly black denominations (see WORLD, Sept. 20).

His lawyer, Grady Irvin, said he returned to the Jewish Anti-Defamation League $214,500 of $244,500 it gave Mr. Lyons earlier this year. The money was to be used to help rebuild black churches damaged or destroyed by fire. Mr. Lyons gave $10,000 to each of three Alabama pastors of burned churches who accompanied him to the ADL presentation. He later assured donors he had distributed the ADL funds to affected churches. However, a Tampa Tribune investigation found the churches listed by Mr. Lyons had not received any of the money. Mr. Lyons told reporters he had not given the money because he discovered the churches didn't need it. Outraged, ADL officials demanded an accounting. After they got back their money, they gave it to the Congress of National Black Churches (CNBC) for distribution to burned churches.

Mounting a counteroffensive, allies of Mr. Lyons called a press conference to raise questions about the millions of dollars raised by the CNBC and the National Council of Churches (NCC) for burned churches. Reading from the NCC's annual report, they said the NCC's Burned Churches Fund has received $10.8 million and spent more than $1 million on staff, travel, and other expenses. NCC spokeswoman Carol Fouke said a full report of fund revenue and expenditures is available, "and it's audited."

Meanwhile, the Union Planters Bank in Nashville, Tenn., filed suit against the NBCUSA to recover what it claims was a loan for $300,000 in 1995, none of which was repaid. The money was advanced to help the denomination market bank credit cards to NBCUSA members, a venture that flopped. It was wired to a bank in St. Petersburg where several church accounts were maintained by Mr. Lyons. The St. Petersburg Times reported that a document used to obtain the money contained a phony NBCUSA resolution authorizing Mr. Lyons to accept the money. The resolution purportedly bore the signature of NBCUSA general secretary Roscoe Cooper. It too was phony.

Mr. Lyons said he doesn't know who signed Mr. Cooper's name. (It is a federal crime to falsify a document to obtain funds from a federally insured bank.) He denied the money was a loan. He said he and another associate pocketed $225,000 of the money as their commissions for setting up and promoting the credit card deal.

The Times reported that at least three other documents containing Mr. Cooper's forged signature, apparently written by the same person, exist. One was on a lease Mr. Lyons submitted to a savings and loan firm when he was trying to buy a $700,000 island luxury home. The lease committed the NBCUSA to pay rent to Mr. Lyons. Bank officials sought it as assurance that the minister would be able to make loan payments. Mr. Lyons told the newspaper he does not remember the lease or know how the bank got it. He said he is trying to sell the house.

Another document committed the NBCUSA to guarantee a $300,000 home loan for a female NBCUSA employee, but it was not submitted after the bank involved decided it wasn't required, the Times said.

Still another, dated last February, appeared on a letter designed to help secure public financing for an 84-bed assisted-living facility Mr. Lyons wants to build next door to his church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist. The letter pledges $750,000 of NBCUSA money to the project, apparently as an incentive for $300,000 from the city to buy the land and for the county to issue tax-exempt bonds for construction. Mr. Cooper told the Times he knew nothing about the proposed facility or financing plans.

The Times also reported that Mr. Lyons had faced criminal prosecution in the past for transactions involving false documents. In 1991, he entered a pre-trial intervention program and paid $85,000 in restitution to avoid a federal charge of bank fraud. The case stemmed from a 1988 bank loan of $85,000 to the Florida General Baptist Convention when he was its president. The loan was secured with counterfeit "share certificates" from a credit union Mr. Lyons helped found.

Pastor E.V. Hill of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts section of Los Angeles stands by Mr. Lyons, who has two years remaining in his term as NBCUSA president. Mr. Hill, 63, a popular speaker at evangelical gatherings, sits on the boards of the NBCUSA, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and other groups. He was chairman of the short-lived ethics and accountability committee chosen to investigate the allegations against Mr. Lyons. He said proposed constitutional revisions to be voted upon next year will define more closely what the president can and cannot do. Meanwhile, the board has taken steps to institute tighter financial controls and ensure greater accountability, he told WORLD.

As for allegations of fiscal misconduct, he said Mr. Lyons had answers, he had sources of funds, no money was missing from NBCUSA accounts, and the committee and board couldn't identify any denominational rule he had broken. "We've never had a president who has raised money like this before, as far as I know," Mr. Hill said. "Billy Graham can't go out and sell endorsements and broker business deals; maybe we need to consider making the same restrictions."

Mr. Hill expressed bitterness toward "the white press," which he believes treats black leaders in general, and Mr. Lyons in particular, unfairly. He blamed the relative lack of black leaders of national "stature" on the white-controlled media.

Should Mr. Lyons step down if he is indicted? "It depends on President Lyons," Mr. Hill said. He confessed to the convention in Denver last month he had made a number of errors, and he asked for forgiveness, Mr. Hill reminded. He suggested that jail had been a badge of honor for many black leaders in the past, and could be in Mr. Lyons's case.

David Aikman

David Aikman

David is a former WORLD contributor.