The church was in distress and likely heading to ruin.
Loan defaults and foreclosure proceedings had the members of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in fear of losing their historic building on the edge of downtown Tampa. Elderly worshippers on fixed incomes were implored to donate more and more to save the church from potential calamity.
Yet unbeknownst to New Salem leaders during this time, a fund designed for churchgoers in financial crisis was being used to quietly direct tens of thousands of dollars to Pastor Henry J. Lyons, as well as to non-profit organizations he created, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
On the surface this is a story of disputed money, but it’s also a tale of broken trust. Lyons, 75, was the leader of the nation’s largest black church group in the 1990s, a mover and shaker whose pursuit of a lavish lifestyle led to fraud and racketeering convictions that landed him in prison for nearly five years. And New Salem is the small, oft-struggling church that offered an infamous preacher a chance at redemption.
While he never had direct access to New Salem accounts during his dozen-plus years there, a months-long Times investigation reveals a pattern of Lyons orchestrating transactions that shifted money away from the church and into accounts under his control.
Among the findings:
• The New Salem benevolence fund, which is intended to support church members in need, provided more than $76,000 directly to Henry Lyons, his wife, Willie, or to non-profits run by Lyons from 2013-17. That’s nearly 83 percent of the money spent by the fund during that time.
• Federal money routed to New Salem for HIV awareness programs was subsequently sent to a non-profit run by Lyons, while thousands of dollars were paid directly to Willie and Henry Lyons in administrative fees.
• Lyons, who owes millions in restitution payments tied to his income level, accepted a reduced salary at New Salem and instead had the church mail thousands of dollars a year to First Baptist Institutional in Lakeland, ostensibly to fund programs for troubled black youth. Except the Lakeland pastor said nearly all of the money disbursed from that account eventually found its way back to Henry or Willie Lyons as “reimbursements” for expenses.
• While living a lifestyle filled with luxury cars, a prized coin collection and a large home in New Tampa, Lyons has doled out a paltry sum to his previous victims. From 2004 to 2015, Lyons paid the equivalent of a grocery bill — an average of $300 a month — to be split among the five companies he defrauded, while making thousands in consulting fees and donations from speaking engagements.
All of which could draw the attention of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is in charge of collecting roughly $5 million in restitution from Lyons’ 1999 convictions in state and federal courts.
During an interview with the Times on June 16, and later through an attorney, the Lyonses say they have done nothing wrong. They say the allegations were manufactured by a handful of unhappy church members.
“Rev. and Mrs. Lyons deny any improprieties regarding the payments to First Baptist Institutional and payments out of New Salem’s benevolence fund, and deny any claim or inference that such payments were made without the knowledge and approval of the trustees and deacons of New Salem,” said Tampa lawyer Vit Gulbis, who was hired by Lyons three weeks ago.
Citing financial improprieties, New Salem fired Lyons as pastor on June 15 and removed Willie Lyons, 60, as head of the church’s day care program. The Times has previously reported that the FBI has begun interviewing church officials and requesting financial documents.
To be sure, this is not the Rolls Royce-driving, mansion-buying, sex-titillating story of Lyons’ previous life when he was president of the powerful National Baptist Convention and pastor of St. Petersburg’s Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church. These allegations don’t compare to the million-dollar crimes that led to Lyons’ convictions in both state and federal courts.
But in one respect, this could be worse.
The financial victims in Lyons’ convictions were mostly corporations and the IRS. This time he is being accused of profiting at the expense of the very churchgoers who offered him a second chance after he was released from prison in 2003.
“This is one slick cat, man. I don’t know how you take advantage of people like that,” said Rufus Spencer, former president of the church and a onetime Lyons supporter.
“It’s like, ‘Dude, do you sit up at night thinking of ways to do (stuff)?’ I just don’t see why you want to come and do people like that, especially people that had taken you in.”
To understand why the church placed so much faith in Lyons, hiring him just months after he left prison, a little background is necessary.
At the time Lyons was released, New Salem was a mess. Infighting had led to the previous pastor’s departure as well as a dramatic drop in church membership.
If hiring a new pastor with a checkered past was a risk, church members felt it was worth it to acquire someone with Lyons’ star quality.
The phrase church members used at the time: A broken pastor for a broken church.
Hired for a modest $400 a week, he was promised that his salary would escalate if he could increase the church’s membership. And that’s exactly what he did.
Within a few years, New Salem went from an average of 50 people in the pews to more than 700 worshippers on the church rolls. New Salem leaders were emboldened enough to buy property near Interstate 4 and Sligh Avenue in 2007, with plans to build a more spacious and modern facility.
What they didn’t count on was the nation’s economic downturn.
When money got tight, the church started losing assets it had used to secure loans. By 2011, the bank had foreclosed on the 43 acres the church had purchased on Sligh. The parsonage, a house used by the pastor and visiting preachers, was also seized. And now a bank had begun foreclosure proceedings against the church’s main building near the University of Tampa.
For more than three years, the church battled to stave off foreclosure. Week after week, members were told their tithes were not enough. More money was needed to save New Salem.
What church members did not know is that starting in 2013, while still facing foreclosure, an inexplicable amount of money was flowing through the benevolence account.
Alongside checks of $25, $75 and $100 written to members to help pay electric bills or car loans, there were much larger payouts, such as a $6,000 check written to Breach Ministries, a charity Lyons created. Another $3,700 written to National Trusted Partners, a national Baptist organization Lyons started. Another $3,700 written to Lyons himself.
In all, more than $42,000 in checks were written just to Breach out of this account between 2013 and 2015, according to a church ledger the Times obtained. Lyons and his wife received more than $18,000 from 2014 to 2017. National Trusted Partners got nearly $11,000. Church leaders say it is unclear how that much money got into an account that normally had a $3,000 balance.
The checks were written by an elderly deacon who told church officials he was following the pastor’s orders.
“None of that was approved by the board,” said New Salem chief financial officer Cheryl Carpenter, who is married to associate pastor Robert Carpenter. “Even though Rev. Lyons may have had control over that account, (the board) should have been informed about money going to … his charity.
“That’s the problem. That’s the issue,” she said. ”No one knew about this money coming out of benevolence and going to Breach Ministries.”
Carpenter said she asked for full disclosure of all church accounts when she took over as chief financial officer in 2015. She never saw the benevolence account until after Lyons was terminated.
“Based on their reactions, I’d say (church officials) were appalled at what was going on,” Carpenter said. “It was very disheartening to see this activity had been taking place based on the church’s (finances) at that time.”
Henry and Willie Lyons have told the Times that trustees and deacons were fully aware of all financial transactions that were taking place between the church, New Salem Ministries and the Lyons charities.
So what, exactly, is Breach Ministries?
It’s an idea Lyons came up with while still in prison. While reading the Bible, he came across a passage in Isaiah 58 that he said inspired him to help others facing hardship in their lives:
Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins;
You will raise up the age-old foundations;
And you will be called the repairer of the breach
“I discovered that while I was incarcerated,” Lyons told the Times in an interview the day after his termination. “This isn’t verbatim, but it (said) there’s a tear here in a wall, a breach. So people like me sought to mend that breach, so that hole will not be there in his life or her life.”
Willie Lyons said her husband wanted to ensure that the young men he came across in prison had someone to turn to when trying to start their lives over.
“That’s what was in his heart when he started this,” she said.
Yet for all the money that flowed from the church to Breach, the charity seems to have little presence anywhere. No website. No Facebook page. Some New Salem leaders had never even heard of it.
From a distance, the gesture looks selfless. Perhaps even noble.
Almost from the time Lyons began at New Salem, church officials say he wanted a hefty chunk of money sent to another church in lieu of a larger salary for himself.
So every month, a check was sent to First Baptist Institutional Church in Lakeland. This was the church Lyons visited hours after his release from prison. The church where he and Willie married on Easter in 2004. The church of Pastor Alex Harper, who had ministered to Lyons during his prison term.
The money, according to Harper, was for Lyons’ Breach Ministries. He said Lyons wanted the money to be used as a lifeline for young, black men in trouble.
There is scant evidence of that happening.
Harper, who is on the board of directors for Breach, says he has never been notified of any board meetings taking place. He didn’t recognize the names of several other board members, and he has no direct knowledge of any programs that were started or supported. He also could not name a single person in need who benefitted from the fund.
When shown a program from New Salem’s 100th anniversary that included a congratulatory ad from Breach ministries with a photo identifying Harper as the charity’s president, he said he had no knowledge of the ad and had never served as president.
“I really didn’t have anything to do with the actual function of the ministry of the Breach program,” Harper said. “(Willie) was in charge.”
The way the fund worked, Harper said, was Willie or Henry Lyons would send him a requisition detailing their expenses for charity work, and he would reimburse them with a check.
In other words, all of the money flowed back to the Lyons family.
Based on New Salem bookkeeping accounts inspected by the Times, a total of $29,500 was sent to First Baptist Institutional from 2004-08. Another $43,712 was sent from 2010-14.
That’s more than $73,000 that was not included in Lyons’ salary, and thus would not have been used by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to calculate restitution payments.
Meanwhile, New Salem’s books show the money going to First Baptist Institutional and not to Breach Ministries. There’s a reason for that. Harper said the account is his discretionary fund as pastor and does not have Breach’s name attached to it.
Which leads to other questions:
If the money was meant for Breach, why wasn’t it deposited directly into the Breach account controlled by Lyons? And why was it necessary for Willie and Henry Lyons to spend money out of their own pockets for Breach expenses and then get reimbursed from an unofficial Breach account?
Harper says the oddities of the arrangement should have raised a red flag for him. He also acknowledged he was allowed to dip into the fund to pay himself for incidental expenses.
“You can be naïve about things and do things without a whole lot of thought just because you know somebody,” Harper said. “I know I did not do this in a real efficient, business way. I should have been asking, “What about this,’ and “What about that?’ ”
When asked to explain the arrangement, Lyons’ attorney said it was the first he had heard of it.
“Is there a legitimate reason to do it? I don’t know,” Gulbis said. “I’ll agree with you, it’s an unusual arrangement.”
Later, after talking to Lyons, Gulbis said the pastor insisted there was nothing improper about the payments.
The money from New Salem stopped arriving at Harper’s church in late 2014. Harper said he does not recall any conversations about why the arrangement ended, but said all of the funds are long gone.
Speaking on June 16, Willie Lyons told the Times it was not unusual for her husband to turn down paychecks.
“This is how he is when he has money coming to him,” Willie said. “He’ll say, ‘No, just give it to Breach. I’ll put it there so it can help somebody else.’ ”
The idea was to address poverty and despair in West Tampa. To be a source of hope in a downtrodden neighborhood. At least, that was the goal when the church established New Salem Ministries in 2003.
Some say the results turned out differently.
When New Salem Ministries began receiving grant money around 2010, former church secretary Wynie Anderson said Lyons would give her specific instructions on how to dole out the funds: She would write a check to one of his charities, another check to Lyons himself, and finally a smaller check to herself.
“I can’t stand the sight of that man because I know what he’s about. He’s about money,” Anderson said. “If he can’t figure out a way to make money, he don’t want nothing to do with it.”
It’s not unusual for an organization to take an allowable portion of grant money to cover administrative costs. Willie Lyons said any money distributed to her and her husband out of New Salem Ministries — as “consultants” — was well within the percentages allowed.
For instance, she said New Salem received an HIV grant for three years. If the money had been misappropriated, she said, the grant would not have been renewed.
“We did health fairs, we did workshops, we did testing events,” she said. “They were monitoring (us) and looking for specific information. So if there were funds issued that were not appropriate … they would have reprimanded us, or they would not have let us reapply.”
Church officials, however, say these funds were distributed out of the New Salem Ministries account without the board’s knowledge or approval. Invoices indicate at least $16,390 was sent from New Salem Ministries to Breach Ministries to perform HIV-related tasks and programs.
The church asked Lyons and his wife to produce records that showed how much grant money was received and how it was dispersed, according to Ray Melendez, chairman of New Salem’s board of trustees.
“They said, “We have the records, give us time to get them together,’ ” Melendez said. “So we gave them a certain amount of time to come up with the records. We revisited that, and they still didn’t have it ready. So they asked to extend it, and we said, “No, the time has come.’ ”
The church said few were aware the grant money had even been awarded, let alone was being redirected to Breach.
“Are there any contracts between us and Breach Ministries that we would donate to this charity?,” Carpenter said. “The answer to that would be no.”
While Lyons was not directly associated with any church bank accounts, he instructed at least two officials to write checks to him or his charities, according to interviews. Often, the people writing the checks were told to give themselves a stipend for their work.
“You know the kind of people who say the pastor can do no wrong? Those are the people he started looking for,” said Spencer, the church deacon. “He started moving us out and putting in people that he could kind of control. But anything he did, he made sure no alarms were raised.”
Secrecy, compartmentalization and vague bookkeeping made it hard for anyone to have a thorough understanding of the church’s finances, according to multiple church officials and documents. It eventually led an outside CPA to part ways in 2011, and prompted her to write a letter suggesting the church was headed toward trouble.
Tracie Lowe said too many reimbursement checks were non-specific and missing verifying documentation. Without proper receipts those reimbursements should be considered salary, she wrote.
“Estimation of the reimbursement is a failure of accounting policy to match exactly the receipt detail to the expense,” Lowe wrote in a letter obtained by the Times. “This policy would mostly affect income for Dr. Henry Lyons.”
It would take six more years after Lowe resigned as the church’s CPA , but the intervention of another outside group of auditors would prove to be Lyons’ downfall at New Salem.
Church leaders wanted a management firm out of Atlanta to take a hard look at the church’s books. Lyons was hesitant to cooperate even after the firm was hired. And when church trustees wanted the firm to inspect the day care center’s books, Henry and Willie Lyons refused.
That’s when church elders began diving deeper into the finances themselves.
New Salem, by this point, had been saved from potential foreclosure.
The downtown building was destroyed by an early morning fire in February, 2015, and the insurance settlement and subsequent sale of the land allowed New Salem to pay off its debts and buy a new building in Temple Terrace.
The fire’s cause was never determined.
He spoke of a life that was no longer his own. He answered not to the name his father gave him, but to a number the state assigned him. He was told when to wake, what to wear and when to sleep. Except, in those days, sleep rarely came.
Henry J. Lyons had already spent months in prison on state charges in 1999 when he appeared before a district judge in Tampa to ask for mercy on his federal sentence.
“I don’t have a lot of time to right all the wrongs that I’ve done,” Lyons told Judge Henry Lee Adams. “If I was in my twenties, time would be on my side. But as I look at it now, time is not on my side because in my way of calculating things, I need to do at least 100 good deeds for every one of these bad deeds. I need time to do that. I need time to correct these wrongs.”
From a pure financial standpoint, it is unlikely Lyons will ever make good on that pledge. It is a simple algorithm of debt, age and salary. The first is too high, the second is too advanced and the third is too low.
But that doesn’t mean his restitution is inconsequential.
He owes the corporations he once swindled. He owes the IRS for taxes he did not pay. He even owes the court for the cost of bringing him to trial. All told, the principal balance on his restitution as of June 30 was $4,979,970.91. If you include the interest, it’s well north of $5 million.
There was a time when Lyons had plenty of cash at his fingertips. As the leader of the National Baptist Convention, he was courted by corporations and politicians seeking his favor. He owned multiple homes and spent freely on luxuries.
But his lavish lifestyle went up in flames exactly 20 years ago this week. After discovering he had purchased a Tierra Verde home with a woman later identified as his mistress, Lyons’ former wife tried to set the house on fire.
The subsequent publicity shined a light on his lifestyle and, within a year, Lyons was facing charges of swindling a bank, a national funeral home company and others who had business dealings with the NBC. He was convicted in state court in Pinellas County and later agreed to a plea deal in federal court in Tampa that included restitution payments.
Since late in 2015, Lyons has been making monthly payments of $929.45 and another $178.35 is garnished from his Social Security checks. That translates to $13,293.60 a year.
The U.S. Attorney’s office will not speak about individual cases, but officials say they typically do not seek more than 25 percent of a person’s income.
The amount Lyons is currently paying would translate to an annual income of $52,956 if he were, indeed, paying 25 percent. Based on New Salem Baptist books viewed by the Times, Lyons made roughly $38,000 in salary in 2014. If you add another $14,300 in Social Security, that would bring his income to around $52,300.
So that would seem close to the acceptable range. Unless Lyons has additional sources of income.
A few years after being released from prison, Lyons ran for president of the Florida General Baptist Convention. He lost, and a month later created his own state convention called the General Baptist State Convention of Florida. A couple of years later he again ran for president of the NBC. He lost, and instead formed National Trusted Partners for Christ.
His own conventions have only a fraction of the membership of the old organizations that he once ran. There’s likely no more than a couple of dozen churches in his state convention.
But churches in both the state and national conventions are expected to pay fees. They often bring cash offerings to the altar when Lyons is presiding over a convention service or seminar, according to New Salem members who have attended events.
Through his attorney, Lyons said he received no salary or compensation from the conventions or Breach Ministries.
The financial litigation unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa monitors restitution cases such as the one involving Lyons. How closely it follows depends on a case’s priority, which is based on how much is owed and the likelihood of recovery .
The U.S. Attorney’s Office would not categorize Lyons’ priority, saying only they “have a strong, ongoing interest.” And would the office consider it a problem if someone was not disclosing income sources?
“We do take that seriously,” said Anita Cream, head of the office’s asset recovery division. “That is a criminal violation itself, making a false statement to the government.”
The day he walked away from prison in 2003, Lyons looked to be in financial ruin.
Just two years earlier, he claimed in court documents to have no assets and $7.8 million in debts when filing for divorce from then-wife Deborah.
Aside from his disgraced tenure as a preacher and one-time leader of the National Baptist Convention, the most recent entry on his resume in 2003 was an $8-an-hour job as a clerk/janitor in a Lakeland funeral home where he spent five months in a work-release program.
His fortunes began to turn when he married Willie, who owned her own home in Lakeland, and when he was hired to rejuvenate New Salem Baptist Church.
The Henry J. Lyons of 2017 now lives in a 3,000-square foot home in a golf-and-country-club community in New Tampa. He and Willie both drive BMWs. He has an amateur coin collection in his home office, and his big screen TV is supplemented with a floor-to-ceiling sound system.
The $137,304.73 he owes in court costs in Pinellas County has not included a single payment in more than a decade.
In a room decorated with money, the bowl of coins is relatively worthless. Unless, perhaps, you consider the insight these stray pennies and dimes provide into the psyche of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.
Here, in his home office, Lyons can relax among the framed, enlarged copies of paper currency. There are prized coins, faux gold bars and other collectibles.
Yet in a shrine to legal tender, Lyons seems most proud of a bowl of loose change he has picked up from sidewalks, parking lots and who-knows-where. He read once that, at any given time, there is $3 million lying on the ground, just waiting to be found.
The search for money, presumably, continues.
Source: TampaBay.com (COREY G. JOHNSON and JOHN ROMANO)
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