Aide's plea ends case and Lyons prosecution

St. Petersburg Times, April 13, 1999
By William R. Levesque

TAMPA -- Brenda D. Harris, whose affair with fallen Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons scandalized his National Baptist Convention USA, pleaded guilty Monday to a lone federal charge in a plea agreement that probably will keep her out of prison.

Federal prosecutors agreed to drop eight other charges against the quiet Nashville, Tenn., woman and said they would not object to a request by her attorney that Harris receive a term of probation when she is sentenced July 26.

With her plea on the day her trial was to begin, Harris joined Lyons and Bernice Edwards in admitting to federal charges, ending nearly two years of investigation and prosecution of Lyons and the two convention employees linked romantically to him.

Harris, 48, admitted she failed to disclose to two banks that a down payment for a $340,000 home in Brentwood, Tenn., came from a secret slush fund controlled by Lyons, instead saying she earned the cash.

"Are you pleading guilty because you are guilty?" U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. asked.

In a soft, steady voice, the onetime Lyons aide who still works as a convention meeting planner told the judge, "Yes, I am."

All that remains for the three defendants after more than 20 months of scandal is the imposition of punishment.

Lyons, serving 51/2 years on state racketeering and grand theft convictions, will be sentenced on five federal fraud and tax evasion charges June 18 and faces an additional seven years in prison. Edwards, acquitted on a state racketeering charge, faces 15 to 30 months in prison when sentenced in September on two tax evasion charges.

It all began with a fire set by Lyons' wife at a $700,000 Tierra Verde home the St. Petersburg minister purchased with Edwards, and it ended, in many ways, at the steps of the federal courthouse with Harris telling reporters she was sorry for what she had done.

Harris, whose nickname in childhood was Miss Priss because a playmate's slur once outraged her, stood beside her attorney after admitting her guilt and spoke softly, almost inaudibly about the embarrassment the criminal charges against her brought.

"I think I can say: Don't get involved in adulterous relationships," Harris said. "Don't do it. It's wrong. . . . I'm sorry I let people down, my friends, my family. We had an opportunity to be in a Christian environment and hold up our Lord, and we failed."

And she remembered Lyons, the former convention president now imprisoned in Orlando, saying: "I don't wish prison on anyone. I'm sorry he had to go there for the things that he has done. I'm praying for him."

Harris instructed her family to stay at home rather than come to court to show support for her. This was a humiliation she said she preferred to endure alone.

"I didn't want them to see this," Harris said as she walked to a probation office, with camera crews pressing in, photographing every uncomfortable step.

Harris said she is unsure what her future holds or if she will stay with the convention. But one thing is certain: She must forfeit to the federal government the Brentwood home she purchased with Lyons' misbegotten money.

Prosecutors approached Harris' attorney, Peter Strianse, on Sunday as he prepared for trial and again broached the idea of a plea. With the central characters in the case having already pleaded out, the prospect of taking the demure, well-spoken Harris to trial was an uncomfortable prospect for prosecutors, her attorneys said.

But Harris had rejected several plea offers, because her attorneys believed the charges of conspiracy, bank fraud and money laundering were inappropriate.

Prosecutors finally offered the deal Harris would embrace: a single charge called "misprision of a felony," which means Harris failed to tell law enforcement about the commission of a felony.

Harris had not been charged originally with the crime, which carries a maximum term of three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Prosecutors also agreed to describe Harris in the plea as a "minor participant" in Lyons' fraudulent schemes.

"We felt all the other charges simply overstated her involvement," Strianse said. "This was a good plea for Brenda. I'm just glad she can finally put all this behind her."

Prosecutors said they would not object at a request by Harris' lawyers that she be sentenced to the low end of guidelines. Though the judge has the final say, the plea all but guarantees Harris will be sentenced to no more than six months' probation.

If convicted at trial, she faced nearly four years in prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Lawson said he was happy to avoid a lengthy, costly trial through the three plea agreements.

"All three defendants said they were guilty of these counts," Lawson said. "I can't say I feel vindication. But the United States people should be happy. We all did our job and I think we now have closure."

Times staff writer Larry Dougherty contributed to this report.

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