Henry J. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, was convicted February 27 of racketeering and grand theft in connection with business deals he made as leader of the historically African-American denomination.
A jury in a Saint Petersburg, Florida, courtroom deliberated for 13 hours over three days before finding Lyons guilty of swindling millions of dollars from two corporations and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith. Lyons, 57, remains free on bail but faces up to eight years in a Florida prison when he is sentenced, scheduled for April. His attorney said he has no plans to resign as convention president. His five-year term ends in September.
Lyons's codefendant, Bernice Edwards, once the convention's public relations director, was found not guilty of racketeering, the only charge against her.
During the six-week trial, prosecution witnesses told how Lyons and Edwards financed a lavish lifestyle by making fraudulent business deals with big corporations. In one deal, an Oklahoma City life insurance company paid Lyons $1 million after he promised to furnish a mailing list of the convention's 8.5-million members. But Lyons never provided the names because no such list existed. A Canadian company paid Lyons and Edwards several million dollars to help it market funeral services to convention members, but witnesses said the two kept the money for themselves, using part of it to buy a $700,000 home in Tierra Verde, near Lyons's hometown of Saint Petersburg.
And when the Anti-Defamation League asked Lyons to distribute almost $250,000 to black churches that had been burned in fires, Lyons kept the money for himself, witnesses said.
The Florida State conviction is only the beginning of Lyons's woes. In April, he will go on trial in federal court in Tampa on 54 charges, including fraud, tax evasion, and extortion. Edwards and former convention meeting planner Brenda Harris are also charged in the federal indictment.
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