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Associate of Lyons accused of fraud

Zurleigh Ashby Hobson is indicted on 10 federal charges involving Bethel Village, which was never built.

A church deacon associated with the Rev. Henry J. Lyons has been indicted on federal fraud charges in connection with plans to build a home for the elderly in St. Petersburg.

Burleigh Ashby Hobson, 64, is ac-cused of conspiring with Lyons and others to submit forged documents to the federal government seeking support for the Bethel Village project.

Bethel Village would have been an 84-bed assisted living facility next door to Lyons' church, Bethel Metropolitan.

The charges flow from the federal investigation into Lyons that culminated in his guilty plea last March, prosecutors said. That day, Lyons told the judge that Hobson had helped him gather letters in support of the project that bore the forged signature of a top NBC official.

Lyons, the former president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., is serving a 5{-year sentence in state prison following his convictions for racketeering and grand theft.

The 10 federal charges against Hobson carry a possible maximum sentence of 50 years in prison.

Hobson, a Realtor, made a brief initial appearance before a federal magistrate in Tampa on Friday afternoon.

Dressed in a dark suit, blue shirt and gold tie, Hobson said little. He was released after signing a $50,000 bond.

An attorney representing Hobson in the hearing, Catherine A. Maus of Fort Lauderdale, declined afterward to say how Hobson would plead to the charges or answer any other questions.

In June, Lyons received a 4-year, 3-month federal sentence that is running at the same time as his state penalty.

Last month, Brenda Harris, a former NBC meetings planner who was also Lyons' mistress, was sentenced to 18 months' probation for failing to acknowledge that the down payment for her $340,000 Nashville house came from a secret fund Lyons controlled.

Bernice V. Edwards, the former communications director for the church, is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 25 on two counts of tax evasion. Edwards, a convicted embezzler who also was romantically linked to Lyons, acknowledged failing to report more than $500,000 she received from corporations interested in doing business with the church. Lawyers in the case say they can't discuss the reason Edwards' sentencing has been delayed so long.

Hobson's indictment focuses on the plans for the Bethel Village project, which was never built. Three people directed it: Hobson, Lyons, and a paid consultant named Martin Bakke.

According to the indictment, Hobson caused to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development a Feb. 3, 1997, letter stating the NBC's support for the project. The letter bore the forged signature of Roscoe D. Cooper, general secretary of the NBC.

After being told that the letter was insufficient to secure $5.4-million in HUD mortgage insurance for the project, the indictment states, Hobson dictated a second letter to a secretary of Lyons. The indictment does not name the secretary.

This letter, dated Feb. 11, 1997, promised that the NBC would provide up to $750,000 for the Bethel Village project. A co-conspirator forged Cooper's signature, the indictment states. The indictment does not name the co-conspirator.

Cooper told federal authorities he had not signed these letters, nor had he known about them at the time. NBC officials disavowed pledging financial support for the project, or even knowing about it.

Last year two handwriting experts hired by the St. Petersburg Times said the Feb. 11, 1997, letter was probably signed by Berlena T. Hudson, who was one of Lyons' secretaries at the time. Hudson had previously denied signing Cooper's name. She declined to comment on the findings of the experts.

Hobson also allegedly signed HUD forms that repeated the bogus promise of $750,000 in support. In December 1997, Hobson made false statements to federal agents investigating the Feb. 11 letter, the indictment states.

The indictment charges Hobson with one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, three counts of wire fraud, and six counts of false statements to HUD.

The land for the Bethel Village project was bought with a $300,000 loan from the city of St. Petersburg. As the agent representing Bethel in the land purchase, Hobson received $17,400 in commissions, the indictment states.

Hobson's modest one-story ranch-style house in Tierra Verde contrasts with the more expensive waterfront residences in the area. Its lawn is overgrown and dotted by weeds.

A dark Toyota Camry sat in the driveway Friday afternoon. No one answered the doorbell. All the blinds of the house were drawn closed.

_ Times staff writer William R. Levesque contributed to this report, which also contains information from Times files.