The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, who once headed the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., the largest and oldest black religious convention in the United States before he was convicted of swindling money from the organization in 1999, was recently ousted from a Florida church after being accused of committing similar crimes.
Church leaders at the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Temple Terrace, Florida, voted last Thursday to remove the 75-year-old Lyons as pastor of the church after he was accused of misappropriating funds for his personal benefit, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
"Call us ignorant, I guess,'' Ray Melendez, the chairman of New Salem's board of trustees, told the Tampa Bay Times. "If anything, we were flattered that he said the Lord told him to come to New Salem. That he wanted to be the shepherd of our flock. We forgave him because he served his time. We thought he had went through his rehab, but apparently he was just the same old Dr. Henry J. Lyons.''
In April 1999, Lyons was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison for stealing more than $4 million from the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. while he served as the organization's president, according to The New York Times.
Earlier that year he was convicted of selling bogus convention membership lists to companies that wanted to sell cemetery products, life insurance policies and credit cards to members of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., the NY Times explained.
He was also found guilty of stealing nearly $250,000 the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith donated to rebuild burned black churches.
''It stinks in God's nostrils,'' a repentant Lyons said at the time, according to the NY Times, ''and I know it stinks in the law's nostrils, and it stinks to me. I ask the court, and I ask America, and I ask black people to forgive me because I believe that it will haunt me the rest of my life. I really do.''
Some 18 years later, Lyons stands accused of committing the same crime.
Lyons told the Tampa Bay Times that most of the allegations seem to be associated with New Salem Ministries' day care center, operated independently from the church by his wife, Willie.
While he said they have not had time to review the allegations listed in a document by the church, he said they seem tied to grant money from five to seven years ago. Any apparent improprieties, he said, are "easily explainable or inadvertent mistakes."
"I really would rather fight, to be honest with you,'' Lyons explained. "I've had a great tenure at this church. It's just been overwhelmingly good with blessings, and things going well and looking well. I'd like to go maybe another year, a year-and-a-half, or two at the most. Because it's really time for me to retire. So I'm facing that. I've already faced that.''
Melendez explained that based on the evidence they have found of Lyons' financial impropriety, he will no longer received a $25,000 retirement package the church had set aside for him.
The termination letter from the church to Lyons also alluded to the possibility that wire or mail fraud may have been committed. Lyons, however, dismissed the suggestion.
"I don't think I'm doing mail fraud. I'm only mailing to the people in the organization. And my organization is growing every year, praise God for that,'' Lyons explained to the Tampa Bay Times. "I stood up the other night at a meeting and said, "Look, y'all need to tell me what in the world is mail fraud.' I don't really understand the monster but y'all keep on saying, "Pastor, you're doing mail fraud.' Tell me what it is.''
Lyons, who once led Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, was one of the most sought-after ministers in the country in his heyday. Political figures like Hillary Clinton and Jesse Jackson court his favor and counsel, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
As his star rose, he lived lavishly and showered female friends with gifts.
But it all came to an end after his third wife, Deborah, discovered he bought a home with another woman and torched their $700,000 house in Tierra Verde in anger.
Deborah's actions led to an investigation into Lyons' personal life which eventually led to his conviction.