Baptist leader goes on trial in Florida racketeering case

CNN, January 26, 1999

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (CNN) -- A respected Baptist preacher was a con man who looked people in the eye and smoothly swindled millions to finance a lavish lifestyle, prosecutors said Monday.

But his defense attorneys painted a portrait of the Rev. Henry Lyons as a humble leader who acted as "gatekeeper" for a powerful black church organization being courted by white businessmen and who is now being held accountable for their failures.

Lyons, the president of the National Baptist Convention USA, went on trial Monday, charged with racketeering and grand theft.

He is accused of devising elaborate schemes to support his rich lifestyle by diverting more than $4 million intended for the convention, and of stealing from the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith $250,000 that was intended to rebuild burned black churches in the South.

Pinellas County Assistant State Attorney Robert Lewis painted Lyons as a preacher who "led two totally different lives."

"He led one public life ... but there was a second side, a hidden side to Henry J. Lyons, a side that caused him to be brought here to this seat," Lewis said in opening statements.

The case centers in large part on Lyons' and co-defendant Beatrice Edwards' dealings with the world's second-largest funeral company, The Loewen Group, based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Edwards was the public relations director of the convention.

The company wanted to attract customers in the black community, where people traditionally seek out independent black funeral directors. Lyons was to deliver black Baptists, and the convention would receive 33 percent of sales through commissions.

Instead, prosecutors say, just $187,600 of Loewen's money went to market cemetery plots, while more than $1.6 million went to Lyons, his friends and family.

But Grady Irvin, one of Lyons' lawyers, said in his opening statement that Lyons had not broken any laws even though some of his business deals failed.

"His endorsement of their product was more important than Michael Jordan's," Irvin said of one company seeking to market credit cards to the convention. "They wanted access from the gatekeeper, and they were willing to pay for it."

"He may have made mistakes, but that's not a crime," Irvin said. . Lyons has survived attempts to oust him as president of the National Baptist Convention, but has lost much of his power and influence.

Off the pulpit, he wielded political clout as leader of a group that claimed to have 8.5 million members -- making it the largest black church organization in the country.

Lyons faces a similar trial on 54 federal charges of bank fraud, wire fraud, extortion and money laundering. He has proclaimed innocence in both cases.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.