Ex-president seeks to block National Baptist vote

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A preacher who wants to resume leading the National Baptist Convention USA after serving a prison term for stealing millions of dollars from the denomination has asked a court to stop an upcoming presidential election.

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons of Tampa had been a candidate in the election scheduled for Thursday in Memphis at the convention’s annual meeting.

His lawsuit, filed in a District of Columbia court and obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, claims new bylaws governing who can vote in the presidential election violate the Nashville-based denomination’s constitution. A hearing on whether to stop the election is set for Wednesday.

The National Baptist Convention USA is considered to be the nation’s oldest and largest predominantly black denomination with an estimated membership of 7.5 million.

Lyons was forced out as president in 1999 after an investigation revealed he abused his power to steal about $4 million, spending it on luxury homes and jewelry. Lyons was eventually convicted and served almost five years in prison.

The lawsuit claims the new bylaws limit the number of representative members eligible to vote and gives some members additional votes if they are designated as representative members by more than one church, association or state convention. Lyons claims such changes constitute a breach of contract.

His petitions says he raised his concerns with convention leadership but it “stated that it will go forward with its 2009 presidential election process.”

Convention spokesman Nathaniel Cook said Tuesday that the group is awaiting the court’s ruling.

Robert Parham, who founded the Baptist Center for Ethics and its Web site about religion called EthicsDaily.com, said he’s unsure how the lawsuit will benefit Lyons.

“One is hard pressed to see how Henry Lyons gains goodwill by trying to block at the last minute a long-scheduled election for the presidency of the nation’s most prestigious African-American Baptist body,” said Parham, who is not affiliated with the denomination.

Lyons, currently pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, couldn’t be reached by The Associated Press for comment on Tuesday. But he said in interviews earlier this year that while he damaged the convention’s reputation, he’s a changed man who deserves a second chance as president.

Lyons’ downfall came after his wife Deborah set fire to a $700,000 waterfront home he co-owned with a mistress, and the resulting investigation revealed he’d stolen money from the organization. The Lyonses have since divorced.

He was convicted of racketeering and grand theft in 1999. He resigned as president and pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion, fraud and making false statements.

Lyons’ opponent for president is the Rev. Julius R. Scruggs, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala.

The current president, the Rev. Dr. William J. Shaw, couldn’t seek a third five-year term under convention rules.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.