Prosecutors say church leader misused money for burned black churches

CNN, January 27, 1999

LARGO, Florida (CNN) -- Prosecutors accused Rev. Henry Lyons in court Tuesday of taking $225,000 meant to help rebuild burned black churches and spending the money to redecorate his house, pay off bills and swell his savings account.

The first full day of testimony began with the jury watching a November 9, 1996 videotape of Lyons accepting the donation from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'rith, a Jewish organization.

"Rev. Lyons made it seem there was an urgency to this ... He indicated there were some churches that needed instruments of worship --- pews and Bibles," said Amy Goldstein, former assistant director of national leadership for the ADL.

Lyons had told the ADL that the money would go immediately to "the wheels that are squeaking the loudest." But prosecutors said Lyons gave $12,000 to his wife, and sent money to his love interests in Tennessee and Indiana.

Prosecutors say Lyons actually distributed less than $40,000 to burned churches -- $10,000 each to three churches and $3,000 each to their pastors.

Lyons and his attorneys say there was no time limit for sending the money to the churches and pointed out the money was returned after the ADL complained.

ADL officials said during cross-examination that their organization had given Lyons no timeline or instructions for distributing the money.

Accused of devising elaborate schemes

Lyons heads one of the nation's leading predominantly African-American religious organizations, the National Baptist Convention. He and co-defendant Bernice Edwards are charged with racketeering.

Prosecutors have accused them of devising elaborate schemes to divert more than $4 million from corporations seeking to do business with the convention. The two allegedly spent the money on expensive homes, diamond jewelry and luxury cars.

Edwards, who was public relations director of the convention, is not charged with misuse of the ADL funds.

The racketeering charges against the two stem from an investigation that began after Lyons' wife Deborah set fire in 1997 to a $700,000 home owned by Lyons and Edwards in St. Petersburg.

Deborah Lyons later pleaded no contest and was placed on probation.

Henry Lyons' state trial -- expected to last about a month -- is being heard by six jurors made up of five women and one man, all white.

Following the conclusion of his state trial, Lyons also faces a federal trial in April on 56 charges, including bank fraud, mail fraud, extortion, and money laundering.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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