San Diego ConVis exec attracts, gets in trouble with Baptists

The Reverend and the lady

— A former San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau executive has become enmeshed in a sex-and-money church money church scandal that's making headlines in Florida, Wisconsin, and Tennessee.

"Baptist Leader Linked to Second Woman Who's Not his Wife," read the headline in a July 19 issue of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "Church faces financial questions; Group loaned Brentwood woman money for a $300,000 house," trumpeted the Tennessean on July 17.

The "second woman" and the "Brentwood woman" are one and the same: Brenda D.

Harris, 47, one-time national sales manager for the San Diego ConVis. The Baptist leader linked to her is the embattled president of the National Baptist Convention (nbc), USA, Inc., Dr. Henry J. Lyons.

Despite speculation to the contrary, Harris denies she's had an affair with Lyons, head of the largest black church organization in America. "Categorically there is no romantic relationship between me and Dr. Lyons," she said by telephone this week from Nashville. "There is a business-professional relationship. There is a friendship, but there is no romantic relationship."

Lyons, 55, first made headlines on July 6, when his wife of 25 years, Deborah, was arrested for arson and burglary. She'd allegedly ransacked and set fire to a $700,000 Tierra Verde, Florida, home - a home Lyons owns jointly with nbc public relations director Bernice Edwards. Pinnelas County sheriffs told the Tampa Tribune that Deborah told them Bernice Edwards was her husband's mistress.

Deborah Lyons later recanted that statement. But since then, a tidal wave of controversy surrounding Lyons has kept his name on the front pages. The publicity has strained his relationship with the 8.5 million-member National Baptist Convention. Now the controversy has dragged Brenda Harris into the mire.

From 1990 to 1993, Harris had been instrumental in creating a special office at San Diego's ConVis targeting African-American convention business. The next year, when she closed the deal on the 30,000-strong National Baptist Convention for the San Diego Convention Center, she so impressed Lyons, elected president of the National Baptist Convention in 1994, that he hired her for his own organization. In September 1995, she became the nbc's executive director of conventions and meetings.

The twice-married Harris, who was raised in California and still owns a home in Oceanside, long dreamed of matching convention business with African-Americans. In 1989, as a single woman, she started her own small business, Harris Travel Management Associates. During 1990, her work attracted the attention of a ConVis executive.

"We really didn't have any African-American business to speak of until Brenda," says Sandra Butler, now vice president of sales at ConVis Hawaii. "I was impressed with her communication skills. I suggested that the [ConVis] position would offer her a platform from which she would advance rapidly if she wanted to go back into business for herself. I was not surprised that [Reverend Lyons] was impressed with her."

Harris's Web page bio, part of the nbc's Web site, says she booked over $128 million in convention business for San Diego during her tenure.

"She is incredibly articulate, incredibly bright, outgoing, and just someone that you wanted to admire, look up to," says Elliott Lawrence, who took over Harris's job when she joined Lyons. "I'm filling some very big shoes."

Lawrence says he and Harris worked closely together to develop an organization called the San Diego Chapter of the Black Hospitality Professionals. "She originated the organization. I worked with her to try to build more African-American participation in the hospitality industry," he says.

Bringing the National Baptist Convention to San Diego was a feather in Harris's cap, Lawrence says. "The nbc is one of the largest religious African-American conventions in the United States. Any [ConVis] person would go after that piece of business because it brings in somewhere around 25,000 to 30,000 people. I've been out [to Nashville] and visited her in her office. She works very hard. You can imagine." The last time he saw Harris was in San Diego about three or four months ago. "Everything seemed to be fine."

Harris's troubles began in late 1995, when she had moved to Nashville and wanted to rent a house. According to the Journal-Sentinel, the house's owners, Kurtz and Janet Lytle, balked after they discovered Harris had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in 1991. She had listed unpaid debts of $48,000. Finally, chairman A.H. Newman of the National Baptist Convention provided written assurances that the rent would be paid. Convention president Reverend Lyons cosigned the lease.

Just eight months later, Harris bought a two-story brick house in trendy Brentwood, south of Nashville, for $340,000. She paid $102,000 in cash, with a $238,000 mortgage, according to county records researched by the Journal-Sentinel. Four months previously, the Journal-Sentinel reports, the nbc adopted a resolution, dated January 23, 1996, promising "any financial assistance in the form of a guarantor, or cosignator toward a loan" necessary to help her buy a home.

The nbc was still $3 million in debt from an ambitious building program started in the '80s. But Lyons told local papers the loan to Harris was necessary to entice such a talented professional. "We had to sweeten the pot," he said.

Some on the nbc's board, including the Reverend Fred L. Crouther, chairman of the board's finance and budget committee, knew nothing about the resolution to help Harris. "That's news to me," Crouther told the Journal-Sentinel late last month.

Harris denies she received any financial assistance to buy the house. "nbc did not help me pay for that house," she says. "That is something that has been very distressing for me. I earned my money. I had a clause in my contract with them that said they would agree to guarantee a loan for $300,000 if I needed it. But once I started to apply for the house, I was able to get it with my own credit; I did not need their guarantee. I used my own money."

But St. Petersburg Times and Journal-Sentinel reporters uncovered tax records showing Harris's 1996 property taxes of $2124 were paid by the National African-American Church Council, a body related to the convention.

Harris says that money replaced a bonus she was due. "I said to President Lyons, 'I'm running behind. I've got to get my taxes paid. Could you just write this check? Just make it out here, and then I can just mail it from here. I won't have to go home, get my business checkbook, send it back.' I said, 'Just write my bonus check here.' I don't even know what account it was on. I have never, ever in my life done anything illegal; I have always been a hard worker. And the signature with my family and my friends is 'Brenda, you work too much.'"

How close were Harris and Lyons? Many rumors were spawned by a "housewarming" party, where, Brentwood neighbors told Times and Journal-Sentinel reporters, they were introduced to "Brenda and Henry Harris." Brenda, they were told, planned meetings and travel, and he was a traveling motivational speaker. Harris also told them Henry was her fiance, the neighbors said.

It was on the night of July 6 that the neighbors saw what looked like Henry Harris's face on the news. Except it wasn't Henry Harris. It was Henry J. Lyons's face, the day after his wife Deborah had trashed the $700,000 Florida home he co-owned with nbc public relations director Bernice Edwards.

Harris says the neighbors got it wrong."I never introduced him as my fiance. I have had a neighborhood get-together at my home where there were a lot of different people. He was not at my housewarming. I do not know what motivated my neighbors to say what they said, and I would not like to discuss that."

Lyons has also told reporters he had "absolutely not" had any romantic relationship with Harris. "Honestly, there is none. Never has been," he told reporters from the St. Petersburg Times. He also denied having a relationship with Bernice Edwards. Last July, the Baptist convention board voted unanimously in a closed meeting to accept Lyons's explanations and retain him as president.

But by last week, cracks in Lyons's support were beginning to show. On Friday, August 15, 60 Philadelphia Baptist ministers urged Lyons to step aside, and that evening, leaders of 23 Nashville churches voted to strip Lyons of his leadership post.

News coverage of the Lyons affair has produced a raft of titillating stories.

l Many clergy, according to the Tampa Tribune, want to know how Lyons manages to finance a lavish lifestyle - including a Rolls-Royce, two Mercedes (one worth $135,000), and the $700,000 Tierra Verde home he and Edwards own - without using church funds.

l According to the St. Petersburg Times, Lyons and Edwards tried to buy another mansion in July - a $995,000 estate near Charlotte, North Carolina. Lyons had received approval for a $500,000 mortgage on the home, but the sale fell through after July's bad publicity.

l In 1991 Lyons was investigated for federal bank fraud, according to the St. Petersburg Times, and paid $85,000 in restitution to the former Citizens and Southern Bank.

l Henry Lyons had been married twice before wedding current wife Deborah in 1972, reports the St. Petersburg Times. Yet he indicated on his 1972 marriage license that he had never been married before.

l Lyons has an adult son serving a prison sentence in North Florida, according to the Tampa Tribune. Thirty-year-old Martin Lyons's rap sheet includes convictions for kidnapping, robbery, and aggravated assault. Henry Lyons never married Martin's mother.

l While Lyons's current wife Deborah was allegedly destroying the Tierra Verde house, her husband was in Nigeria with Bernice Edwards on a trip paid for by Nigeria's government. The trip itself drew fire from Randy Echols, a spokesman for the Nigerian democracy movement, who objects to the current military dictatorship in Nigeria. "[Lyons] should be ashamed of himself," Echols told the St. Petersburg Times.

Lyons did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Despite all this, San Diego's Harris has no plans to leave her post in Nashville. "This is not something I would like to go through on a regular basis. It has been difficult, but I also feel what doesn't kill you will build character."

Harris still admires Reverend Lyons. "He is very charismatic, and in spite of all the allegations, he has done a lot for this convention. We had a very large debt at our world center headquarters here: $8.5 million. He has reduced that debt down to $3 million. He has raised a significant amount of money to support the 12 colleges and universities around the country [that the convention supports]. No one has ever done that before. He's created a pension plan for the ministers of this convention, a retirement program...."

But the Rolls-Royces? The other women? The houses? "He's an entrepreneur. His goal was to help raise the economic development of this convention and of African-Americans. I'm not going to comment on all the stuff in the papers."

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