Rev. Henry Lyons pleads guilty to federal counts in plea deal

St. Petersburg Times, March 17, 1999

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- The Rev. Henry Lyons pleaded guilty Wednesday to five federal counts of tax evasion and fraud as part of a plea deal in which 49 other charges against the former National Baptist Convention USA president were dismissed.

"Yes sir, I am guilty of those counts," Lyons told U.S. Circuit Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr.

The minister pleaded guilty to one count of bank fraud, two counts of tax evasion, one count of making false statements to a bank officer and one count of making false statements to the federal government.

At the end of the hourlong hearing, Lyons shook hands with U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson and said, "I appreciate everything everybody did. I'm sorry about it."

Wilson replied: "You did the right thing."

Lyons originally had been charged with 54 counts, including money laundering, wire fraud and extortion.

Afterwards, Lyons spoke briefly on the courthouse steps, apologizing for his deeds and announcing he was ridding himself of material goods except the house he shares with his wife, Deborah.

"I will take full responsibility and I accept full blame for everything that happened while I was at the helm of the National Baptist Convention," he said, flanked by attorney Jeffrey Brown, his wife and several supporters.

"When the devil came to Jesus Christ, he tempted him with fame, power and wealth, and I've fallen far short of the standards set by our Lord.

"In 60 or more days, the federal and state government will take my body, but my soul and my mind will never be shackled and I will continue to serve God as I have done all my life," Lyons said, reading from a brief statement.

"I'm just a man. I have made mistakes. And I'm sorry," he added.

The plea deal came one day after Lyons' tearful resignation as president of the influential black church organization. He was convicted two weeks ago of state charges of racketeering and grand theft for swindling millions from corporations seeking to do business with convention members.

Lyons, 57, faces three years to seven years in prison under state guidelines for those convictions when he is sentenced March 31.

The federal charges carry a total possible sentence of 75 years and millions of dollars in fines. Under sentencing guidelines, however, he would face a much shorter prison term.

Federal prosecutors said they would not recommend a sentence until after a pre-sentence investigation is completed, taking into account the crime, its impact on victims and Lyons' background.

Defense attorneys estimated he would serve between 70 months and 87 months in prison on the federal charges. Sentencing was set for June 18.

Lyons' composed demeanor outside court was a stark contrast to his tearful resignation Tuesday during an emergency session of the convention board at his Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in nearby St. Petersburg.

"I felt I had to resign. I should resign. I did resign," Lyons told reporters at a news conference outside the church after the three-hour meeting.

"I'm just so sorry about all of this. I'm truly repentant about it. I hate that I hurt so many people."

It marked the first time in the convention's 100-plus year history that a president resigned.

"We're not embarrassed," the Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles said, comforting Lyons. "We forgave any error you made."

Lyons, his wife at his side, vowed prison would not end his mission to preach. "I'll be back. I'll come back strong," he said.

When Lyons stepped down, he was surrounded by supportive ministers who gave him an overwhelming vote of confidence and twice tried to talk him out of quitting.

The Rev. S.C. Cureton of Mauldin, S.C., the convention's vice president at-large, assumed the post of president and urged all convention members nationwide to "join hearts and hands and press forward."

Lyons' troubles began in July 1997 when his wife set fire to a $700,000 waterfront home he owned with another woman, Bernice Edwards of Milwaukee. She was a co-defendant at Lyons' trial and was acquitted of racketeering charges. She still faces federal trial.

Lyons was convicted of racketeering for bilking millions from corporations that wanted to sell cemetery products, life insurance policies and credit cards to convention members.

He also was convicted of grand theft for stealing almost $250,000 from the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'rith -- money intended to rebuild burned black churches in the South.

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