Defense attorney: 'Corporate giants against little preacher'

CNN, February 24, 1999

CLEARWATER, Florida (CNN) -- Prosecutors will present their rebuttal Thursday before the racketeering case against an influential black minister goes to the jury.

During their closing arguments Wednesday, attorneys for Dr. Henry Lyons told jurors that state racketeering charges against him amount to "corporate giants against the little preacher."

Lyons is president of the National Baptist Convention, one of the largest black religious organizations in the United States. He and his former aide, Bernice Edwards, are accused of bilking corporations out of $4 million by selling phony mailing lists and diverting money intended for charity.

But Grady Irvin, one of Lyons' attorneys, said the charges amount to no more than "corporate affairs that didn't work out."

Irvin said National Baptist Convention members have not complained about Lyons, nor have any civil suits have been filed by the corporations he is alleged to have cheated. Irvin said the state is meddling in religion.

"This religious organization has the freedom to run its affairs as it sees fit," said Irvin. "This case isn't about what it should really be about -- corporate deals that didn't work out."

If the state of Florida has its way, said Irvin, "Next thing you know, are they going to be writing sermons, telling us when to pray, when to get to down on our knees, when to get up?"

Prosecutor: 'Their creed was greed'

In the state's closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Jim Hellickson said of Lyons and Edwards, "Their creed was greed."

The prosecution showed a videotape of Lyons accepting a check for $200,000 from the Anti-Defamation League to rebuild burned black churches.

Instead of giving the money to those churches, said Hellickson, Lyons and Edwards bought jewelry, luxurious waterfront homes and a lavish lifestyle for themselves.

Prosecutors also said the evidence showed Lyons and Edwards sold inflated lists of National Baptist Convention members to corporations.

The charges stem from an investigation that began after Lyons' wife Deborah set fire to the house Lyons and Edwards owned in St. Petersburg in July 1997.

Lyons' wife told deputies she believed her husband and Edwards were having an affair.

Deborah Lyons, later convicted of arson and sentenced to probation, has since said she does not believe Edwards was her husband's mistress.

Federal trial in spring

Lyons did not testify in his own defense, because, his lawyers said, he still faces a federal trial in April on 54 counts, including tax evasion, extortion and money laundering.

Edwards also faces a federal trial in the spring. She spent three days on the witness stand during the state trial describing her relationship with Lyons -- which she said was strictly professional -- and detailing the corporate deals and her lavish spending.

Producer Kim Segal and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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