Ten years ago today, the Rev. Henry Lyons stood in a Pinellas County courtroom convicted of grand theft and racketeering.
It was a steep fall from grace for Lyons, then-president of the powerful National Baptist Convention USA. He would eventually serve nearly five years in prison for swindling more than $5.2 million from the group's corporate partners.
Lyons, 67, now leader of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church near downtown Tampa, aspires to reclaim the job he had to resign.
He is one of two candidates vying for the organization's presidency in an election set for September at the group's convention in Memphis, Tenn. His opponent is the Rev. Julius Scruggs, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala., and the convention's current vice president at large.
Both candidates were certified by the convention's board of directors. To qualify, the men were required to submit letters of support from 100 active churches and other associations within the national organization.
The winner will serve a five-year term. The convention claims about 7.5 million members on its Web site, but does not specify the number of member churches.
"This has never come up before," said the Rev. Wendell Griffen, a staff minister at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., of a convicted felon running for the top office. As the convention's parliamentarian, Griffen is charged with helping develop the organization's constitution, bylaws, procedures and policies.
Says Griffen: "There's nothing in the rules to prevent him from making a run."
Several attempts to reach Lyons for comment were unsuccessful. He has kept a low profile since his release from prison in November 2003. At that time, he compared himself to Job, the long-suffering patriarch of the Old Testament. Like Job, Lyons said, he was a "prestigious man, blessed of God," who was brought low but found salvation.
According to the terms of his sentence, Lyons had to serve five years' probation and pay $5.2 million in restitution to the swindled companies.
At least one of his longtime associates in Tampa had no idea that Lyons had decided to re-enter political leadership at the church's national level.
But William Saunders wasn't surprised.
"Rev. Lyons is a born leader," said the gospel music historian and producer who has known Lyons for about 25 years. "He was designed that way by God, even before his birth. He did so much good for the convention before he lost his way. But God is forgiving. And now that Rev. Lyons has paid his dues, he's come out stronger than ever."
Saunders said that Lyons' prison experience has made him an even better preacher.
"Moses had to go away to the desert for awhile, and he came back a better man," Saunders said. "Rev. Lyons deserves the same grace and mercy that God bestows on all of us."
This isn't Lyons' first attempt to reclaim a high-profile leadership position since his release from prison.
In April 2007, he was one of three candidates running for president of the Florida General Baptist Convention. Of the 1,012 delegates casting ballots at the election in Fort Lauderdale, 539 voted for the Rev. James B. Sampson of Jacksonville and 306 for Lyons. The third candidate, the Rev. Michael J. Johnson of Pensacola, got 167 votes.
Lyons' downfall began two years before his conviction, when his then-wife Deborah set fire to a $700,000 Tierra Verde home owned by Lyons and his mistress, Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler. For months, he denied any wrongdoing. Then an investigation into his personal and church affairs revealed he had used convention money to finance a lavish personal lifestyle.
Whoever succeeds the current convention president, the Rev. William J. Shaw, who is completing his second term, will have a much healthier organization than a decade ago, Griffen said.
The convention was "demoralized in spirit and tarnished in reputation" when Lyons resigned, he said. Shaw helped retire a multimillion-dollar debt, stabilize the fiscal and administrative processes, and re-establish "integrity and credibility" to the organization.
Griffen said one of Shaw's most important accomplishments was serving as a "driving force" in bringing unity to all the black Baptist organizations. Twice in the past two years the groups have gathered together - the first time since they split in 1915.
When asked how delegates will react to Lyons' candidacy, Griffen said he hoped many factors would come into play.
"I imagine people will evaluate each candidate based on his merits, experience and what he can bring to the convention," he said. "That includes also looking at his history."
HENRY LYONS TIMELINE
• JULY 1997 - Henry Lyons' wife, Deborah, is arrested on charges of setting fire to a $700,000 home. At the time, Henry Lyons is president of the National Baptist Convention USA and pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. Deborah says she set the fire after learning her husband was having an affair.
• AUGUST 1997 - Records show Lyons and convention employee Bernice Edwards own a Lake Tahoe, Nev., time-share, and that a check from a convention account was used for a down payment on a $36,200 diamond ring for Edwards.
• FEBRUARY 1998 - Lyons and Edwards are charged with grand theft and racketeering.
• MARCH 1998 - Lyons and Edwards plead not guilty.
• JULY 1998 - Lyons and Edwards are named in a 61-count federal indictment alleging tax evasion, extortion, money laundering, wire and bank fraud and conspiracy. Another alleged mistress, Brenda Harris, is named on eight counts. Edwards pleads not guilty.
• FEBRUARY 1999 - Lyons is found guilty of the state charges. Edwards is found not guilty.
• MARCH 1999 - Lyons pleads guilty to reduced federal charges. He's sentenced to four years on the federal crimes, to run concurrently with his state sentence of five years. Edwards pleads guilty to two counts of federal income tax evasion. Prosecutors drop 25 additional charges.
• APRIL 1999 - Harris pleads guilty to reduced charges.
• MARCH 2003 - Deborah and Henry Lyons divorce.
• MAY 2003 - Edwards dies in federal prison.
• NOVEMBER 2003 - Henry Lyons is released from prison.
• MARCH 2004 - Lyons is hired as interim pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa.
• DECEMBER 2006 - He announces his candidacy for president of the Florida General Baptist Convention.
• APRIL 2007 - Garnering only 306 of the 1,012 votes cast, Lyons loses the election.
• JANUARY - Lyons becomes certified candidate for president of the National Baptist Convention USA and begins campaign for September's election in Memphis.