The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president of the nation's largest African-American religious organization, was vindicated when a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that rivals who alleged vote fraud must pay him $150,000 plus attorneys' fees and other legal expenses.
Attorneys for Lyons were notified of the final action late Tuesday night. The ruling marks the end of a nine-month legal odyssey and a bid to prevent Lyons from taking the reins of the National Baptist Convention USA. Secretaries, wives and even the mother of one of Lyons' rivals were involved in the scheme to block his takeover.
"This court has never witnessed and hopes never again to witness the kind of fraud perpetrated on this court as well as the despicable, conscious and collusive conduct demonstrated by the plaintiffs, the defendants and their respective counsel in this case-at-bar," Judge Zinora M. Mitchell-Rankin wrote in her decision.
Lyons, head of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, won the leadership post at a Sept. 8 meeting in New Orleans. He defeated the outgoing president's hand-picked successor, and that perhaps is where the troubles began.
A month later, Lyons was prevented from formally taking the reins of the 8-million-member National Baptist Convention when a group of Alabama church members obtained a court order freezing church business, alleging voting irregularities in the Lyons election. To get the court order, the Alabama group produced signed legal affidavits from 44 church members who said they had been denied the right to vote in the election.
The tides turned in October when Lyons produced some of the individuals whose names appeared on affidavits.
Many told Mitchell-Rankin that they had not signed the affidavits. Some had actually voted. Some weren't eligible to vote. Some had not even attended the New Orleans convention.
At that point, Mitchell-Rankin lifted the freeze on church business, allowing Lyons to assume the duties of his office, and ordered attorneys to determine how many of the affidavits were faked.
"We went down to Alabama to interview some of these people and we were just dumbfounded by what we found," said Jim Regan, an attorney for Lyons.
Ms. Harveta Jackson, an Alabama pastor's secretary, conceded she signed an affidavit knowing full well she wasn't eligible to vote. Betty Merriweather, the wife of an Anniston minister, admitted that she had in fact voted. And Ruthie Mae Kimber, the mother of the campaign manager for Lyons' chief presidential rival, said she persuaded a notary to validate the affidavits after falsely informing him that she had seen the individuals sign them.
"I've never seen anything quite like it," Regan said, referring to the pervasiveness of the fraud.
Regan said the award of attorneys fees and legal expenses should be substantially larger than the $150,000 punitive award, since it includes the costs of transportation and lodging for every witness who testified or participated in the case.
Lyons' predecessor, the Rev. T. J. Jemison, and attorneys for the Alabama plaintiffs did not respond to phone calls Wednesday.