Image: Rev. Henry J. Lyons
Willie J. Allen Jr.  /  AP
Rev. Henry J. Lyons preaches in 2003 at the First Baptist Institutional Church in Lakeland, Fla.
updated 3/26/2009 9:19:37 PM ET 2009-03-27T01:19:37

The ousted former president of a national organization of black Baptist churches is running for the position again, a decade after he was sent to prison for stealing millions of dollars from the group.

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons was forced out as leader of the National Baptist Convention USA in 1999 after an investigation revealed he abused his power in the convention to steal about $4 million. He used the money to buy luxury homes and jewelry, and to support his mistresses.

Lyons currently serves as pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla., and lost a bid to become president of the convention's Florida chapter in 2007.

A September election
Lyons is running against one other candidate, the Rev. Julius R. Scruggs, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church, in Huntsville, Ala., who also serves as vice president at large for the convention. The election takes place in September.

Aldon Morris, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, who's written extensively about the convention, says Lyons faces an uphill battle and he doesn't expect him to win.

"I think there's significant numbers of leaders in the group across the county who feel it's fine to forgive, but why have a leader with this sort of baggage?" Morris said. "The organization was very embarrassed by the charges against him. He certainly left it in bad shape."

But Lyons isn't without supporters. The Rev. Darin Freeman, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Charleston, W.Va., praised Lyons for reducing the convention's debt by two-thirds in four years and skillfully handling divisions between churches of different sizes.

"Smaller churches around the country felt like they were equal with megachurches," Freeman said. "A local pastor of 300 is equal to a pastor of 30 or a pastor of 3,000. All of us have a say."

Lyons didn't respond to several attempts by the The Associated Press to reach him by phone. But he told The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville that while he damaged the convention's reputation, he's a changed man who deserves a second chance as president.

"The shame of it I don't believe it will ever go away. There's nothing I can do about it," he said.

Current president the Rev. Dr. William J. Shaw can't seek a third five-year term under convention rules.

Home set ablaze by ex-wife
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.

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

Scruggs, who hopes to increase church participation in convention activities if elected, declined to say much about Lyons' candidacy.

"I prefer building on the present and the future and being as positive as possible and really don't want to go back to that era and talk about those negatives," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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