The leader of one of the nation’s largest black denominations was charged Wednesday with racketeering and theft for allegedly opening a secret bank account and diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars in church funds for his personal use.
The Rev. Henry Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc., was accused of defrauding the Anti-Defamation League out of nearly $250,000 it donated last year to rebuild black churches in the South that had been burned.
Lyons was charged with one count of racketeering and two counts of theft. He was released on $100,000 bail. As he arrived at court, Lyons said he planned to clear his name. If convicted, he could face 30 years in prison.
A former church worker with whom Lyons allegedly had an affair also was charged with theft. Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler, was arrested in Milwaukee, where she lives.
The convention claimed to have 8.5 million members, which would make it the largest black denomination in the country.
But the indictment called that figure “a complete hoax,” putting the convention’s membership at between 500,000 and one million.
Prosecutors said Lyons and Edwards inflated membership figures to attract private contributions in exchange for the convention’s product endorsement. The pair then diverted the donations to personal accounts, according to the indictment.
Lyons opened a secret bank account shortly after being elected in 1995, prosecutors said, and even gave church money to his wife, Deborah Lyons, his daughter and a church worker, Brenda Harris.
The 88-page indictment said Lyons and Edwards began defrauding several banks in June 1995 and continued until last August. It did not give a total of how much money the two were suspected of stealing.
Lyons, 55, became the target of a federal grand jury investigation last year after his wife was charged with setting fire to a waterfront house he owns with Edwards. He was suspected of using church money to buy the real estate as well as cars and jewelry for Edwards.
Lyons has denied having an affair with Edwards or misusing funds. Last year, Deborah Lyons admitted setting the fires, saying she had a drinking problem. She was sentenced to five years’ probation.
A federal grand jury in Tampa continues to investigate Lyons’ finances, including corporate deals Lyons brokered on the church’s behalf.
Lyons also has been accused of accepting $350,000 in secret payments from Nigeria’s military ruler. The St. Petersburg Times has reported that Lyons acted as an unregistered lobbyist for Nigeria when it was seeking better treatment from the United States.
In past months, Lyons survived repeated no-confidence votes from the church membership and publicly apologized but admitted no more than serious errors in judgment.
“I have sinned,” he said in December. “And I have displayed human weaknesses and frailties.”