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Nigeria sent cash to a fund Rev. Henry Lyons controlled



  Please find below the article that appeared in the St. Petersburg Times 
  and was published November 25, 1997.  It is the most well researched 
  and comprehensive investigation into the relationship between the 
  Nigerian government and Rev. Henry Lyons, president of the National 
  Baptist Convention USA.
  
  
  
  
  
  Nigeria sent cash to Lyons fund
  
  By DAVID BARSTOW, MIKE WILSON and MONICA DAVEY
  ┬ęSt. Petersburg Times, published November 25, 1997 
  
  
  During a period when the Rev. Henry J. Lyons lobbied the Clinton 
  administration and Congress to soften opposition to the military 
  government of Nigeria, a total of $350,000 was deposited into a secret 
  bank account controlled by Lyons. 
  
  The source of the money: the Nigerian government. 
  
  As the money poured in, Lyons was establishing himself as one of 
  America's most visible and important spokesmen for the regime of Gen. 
  Sani Abacha, who seized power in the African nation in a palace coup in 
  1993. 
  
  Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, sent 
  convention members on "fact-finding" missions to Nigeria, vigorously 
  lobbied influential black members of Congress and pitched the Nigerian 
  point of view to the National Security Council at the White House. 
  
  The three deposits into Lyons' secret account -- the Baptist Builder 
  Fund at the United Bank in St. Petersburg -- occurred between April 
  1996 and February 1997. The checks came from Nigeria's Permanent 
  Mission to the United Nations. Over the past few years, the mission has 
  played a significant role in financing the Abacha government's 
  multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign in the United States. 
  
  The checks -- for $200,000, $50,000 and $100,000 -- were made out to 
  the National Baptist Convention Education Fund or to the National 
  Baptist Convention Fund. No record of the deposits appears in 
  convention financial reports and several convention board members said 
  they knew nothing of them. 
  
  It is a felony under federal law to lobby for a foreign government 
  without filing formal registration papers with the Justice Department. 
  Lyons did not register. Government officials do not recall Lyons 
  informing them about the $350,000 deposited to the Baptist Builder 
  Fund, over which he had sole control. 
  
  Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which staunchly opposed the 
  Abacha government, were shocked when Lyons lobbied them in July 1996. 
  
  "We didn't know what kind of compensation he was receiving, but we knew 
  from what he said that he was working for the government some kind of 
  way," said Rep. Harold Ford Sr., D-Tenn., now retired. "If he had told 
  us that he was a paid lobbyist for Nigeria, he never would have been 
  allowed to come before the caucus." 
  
  Lyons declined to be interviewed for this story, but his attorney 
  released a statement from Lyons' office on Monday. The one-page 
  statement did not address the deposits to Lyons' secret account, nor 
  did it address his lobbying activities. It referred only to an 
  expense-paid trip that Lyons and others took to Nigeria in July. 
  
  "No member was under any obligation, whatsoever, to endorse the 
  political views of Nigeria's government or its people," the statement 
  said. 
  
  According to the statement, "this office or one of its representatives 
  consulted certain African-American members of Congress prior to the 
  delegation traveling to Nigeria -- for the purpose of learning any 
  concerns such members might have." 
  
  In an interview with the Times after returning from his trip, Lyons 
  denied that he had been asked to become a paid lobbyist or agent for 
  Nigeria. 
  
  "I'm a man, I support my family, I'm not going to sit here and say I'm 
  going to turn down some money, but that never came up," he said then. 
  "My effort has been strictly from a humanitarian point of view and 
  right now that's strictly what it is." 
  
  Nigeria's Permanent Mission, the country's diplomatic liaison to the 
  United Nations, has "no evidence . . . that we made any payments to Dr. 
  Lyons," according to deputy defense adviser Yusuf Mshelia. 
  
  Asked whether the mission wrote checks to the National Baptist 
  Convention Education Fund or the National Baptist Convention Fund, 
  Mshelia would not answer. 
  
  
  Lobbying begins 
  Lyons' transition from religious leader to lobbyist began in 1995. 
  
  At the time, Nigeria's military dictatorship was facing a serious image 
  problem in the United States. 
  
  The State Department had reported a catalog of abuses by the Abacha 
  administration: crushed protest marches, harassment of pro-democracy 
  groups, the imprisonment and assassination of political rivals. The 
  Clinton administration denounced Nigeria as a hub of the world heroin 
  trade and denied entry visas to Nigerian officials and their families. 
  
  The Abacha government responded by hiring a battalion of Washington 
  lobbyists to get the United States to rethink its policies toward 
  Nigeria. The Nigerian government spent millions; one firm received 
  $2.5-million over three years. 
  
  The most visible lobbyist for Nigeria was the Rev. Maurice Dawkins, 76, 
  a former Baptist minister and unsuccessful Republican candidate for the 
  U.S. Senate in Virginia in 1988. 
  
  In July 1995, Dawkins helped the lobbying firm of Symms, Lehn & 
  Associates land a $350,000 contract with the Abacha government. 
  Dawkins' job was to present Nigeria as a modern, flourishing country 
  moving toward democracy under the shrewd leadership of Abacha. 
  
  Meanwhile, he portrayed U.S. policy as racist. Why else does the United 
  States grant most favored nation trading status to China but not 
  Nigeria? 
  
  Dawkins pitched these ideas to black leaders, who strongly influence 
  U.S. policy toward Africa. But there was a problem: Almost every member 
  of the Congressional Black Caucus regarded Abacha as a brutal leader 
  who promised democracy even as he held Nigeria's elected president in 
  solitary confinement. 
  
  So Dawkins tried to reach African-Americans by appealing to the people 
  who speak to them -- preachers and black newspaper publishers. 
  
  In September 1995, he sent a group of black publishers on a tour of 
  Nigeria. The Nigerian government paid all expenses. Several of the 
  black newspapers later published special sections touting Abacha as "a 
  family man" and "a historical figure." Dawkins wrote some of the copy. 
  
  Then Abacha made Dawkins' job harder. 
  
  On Nov. 10, 1995, Abacha's government ignored international appeals and 
  executed writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others. A military 
  tribunal convicted the activists of inciting a riot that led to the 
  deaths of four pro-government tribal leaders. 
  
  The activists were hanged without an appeal days after their 
  conviction. 
  
  Suddenly Abacha wasn't merely unpopular; he was viewed as a pariah. 
  Nelson Mandela called Nigeria's government "an illegitimate, barbaric, 
  arrogant dictatorship." Fifty-four influential black Americans, 
  including Bill Cosby and Coretta Scott King, sent Clinton a letter 
  demanding a harsh response. In Congress, bills were introduced calling 
  for a ban on new investment in Nigeria. 
  
  There was talk of an oil embargo. This would have been a serious blow 
  to Nigeria, which supplies 600,000 barrels a day to the United States 
  and gets 80 percent of its government revenues from oil. 
  
  Nigeria countered with a newspaper ad campaign, but that wasn't going 
  to be enough. The Abacha regime needed a spokesman, someone prominent 
  and well connected who could counter the Bill Cosbys and Coretta Scott 
  Kings. 
  
  
  Enlisting Lyons 
  Henry J. Lyons was just the kind of person Abacha had been looking for. 
  Lyons claimed to represent 8.5-million black Baptists. President 
  Clinton sought his advice and support. He had useful contacts in the 
  Congressional Black Caucus. 
  
  Weeks after the nine activists were hanged, Dawkins sent a group of 
  ministers on another expenses-paid trip to Nigeria. Among them were the 
  Rev. James Rogers of Las Vegas and the Rev. Russell Odom of West Palm 
  Beach. 
  
  Both had close ties to Lyons. Rogers was a member of the National 
  Baptist Convention board. Odom had served as Lyons' political director 
  when Lyons was president of the convention's Florida branch. 
  
  Along with Dawkins, these men would attempt to get Lyons interested in 
  Nigeria. 
  
  In January 1996, Odom sent Lyons a packet of pro-Nigeria literature. 
  Rogers and Dawkins followed up with phone calls. 
  
  The National Baptist Convention had shown little, if any, interest in 
  Nigeria during Lyons' presidency. Available records show the subject 
  did not come up at convention meetings in 1994 and 1995. The convention 
  hadn't sponsored a mission in Nigeria since 1962. 
  
  But now Lyons was receptive. He had often hired himself out as a 
  spokesman for political causes. Lyons had worked for Democrats and 
  Republicans, management and labor, sometimes shifting his views 
  depending on who was paying him. 
  
  In March, Lyons sent a delegation to monitor local elections in 
  Nigeria. He called it his Task Force on Africa and put Rogers in 
  charge. The task force also included Odom and the convention's first 
  vice president. 
  
  Rogers said the delegation met privately with Abacha, who spoke of 
  wanting to enlist America's black leaders in Nigeria's cause. Rogers 
  said the delegation emphasized Lyons' stature and influence. 
  
  They stayed a week, traveling in government Mercedes-Benz limos, 
  shopping with hundreds of dollars also provided by the Nigerians, 
  Rogers said. The delegation originally had planned to meet with top 
  political prisoners, he said, but never got around to it. 
  
  When the delegates left, their government handlers presented them with 
  souvenir tie-dye T-shirts. 
  
  Dawkins -- whose firm so far had been paid $350,000 to represent 
  Nigeria -- would later boast that he "enlisted the support of Dr. Henry 
  Lyons . . . and launched a nationwide petition campaign to battle for 
  the mind of President Clinton." 
  
  On April 9, Lyons had an opportunity to do just that. Clinton hosted a 
  reception for a group of ministers at the White House, and Lyons was 
  there. The White House won't say whether Lyons talked to Clinton about 
  Nigeria that night, or ever. 
  
  Five days later, a check for $200,000 was deposited into the Baptist 
  Builder Fund, Lyons' secret account. The check was drawn on an account 
  at a Chase Manhattan Bank branch in New York City. 
  
  That account, #0141147009, belonged to the Permanent Mission of 
  Nigeria. 
  
  To people in the business of lobbying for Nigeria, the account sounds 
  familiar. One lobbyist, Jeff Birrell, said he once received a $100,000 
  payment from a Chase Manhattan account belonging to the Permanent 
  Mission. 
  
  The lobbying firm Dawkins worked for dealt exclusively with Col. 
  Mohammed Marwa, then the defense adviser attached to the mission. Marwa 
  often hired lobbyists. He also briefed Odom and Rogers before their 
  December trip to Nigeria. 
  
  "His assignment was to buy as much support as possible for the junta," 
  said Julius Ihonvbere, a member of the Nigerian opposition in the 
  United States. 
  
  Lyons' support was needed now more than ever. The U.S. Senate was 
  considering legislation to impose new sanctions on Nigeria. Also that 
  May, the internationally respected Committee to Protect Journalists 
  named Abacha to its list of the world's top-ten Enemies of the Press. 
  
  Abacha was No. 3 on the list, just behind China's Deng Xiaoping, but 
  several notches above Fidel Castro. 
  
  
  Deposits made 
  On June 3, another check from the Permanent Mission of Nigeria was 
  deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund. 
  
  The amount: $50,000. 
  
  The next day, Nigeria's image problems worsened. Kudirat Abiola, mother 
  of seven and wife of the imprisoned winner of Nigeria's 1993 
  presidential election, was murdered near a military checkpoint. Armed 
  men pulled Mrs. Abiola out of her car and shot her in the forehead. 
  
  Days later, Lyons had another opportunity to lobby the Clinton 
  administration. On June 8, he attended a private reception for Hillary 
  Rodham Clinton at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg. Mrs. 
  Clinton's spokesman would not say whether Lyons spoke to her about 
  Nigeria. 
  
  Later that month, a Nigerian government official addressed the board of 
  the National Baptist Convention in St. Louis. According to minutes of 
  that meeting, the representative "appealed to the convention to share 
  in leading a crusade to change present United States policy toward 
  Nigeria." 
  
  Rogers, who had led the task force to Nigeria, was in St. Louis. He 
  spoke to Lyons about Nigeria. Lyons didn't mention deposits into the 
  Baptist Builder Fund, Rogers said. 
  
  He was not entirely surprised when a reporter told him of the deposits. 
  As early as January 1996, Rogers said, he had heard gossip of such 
  payments among top convention officials. 
  
  "I was told there was supposedly money transferred over from Nigeria," 
  he said. 
  
  
  Nigeria talk angers 
  The Congressional Black Caucus has long opposed the Abacha government. 
  Lyons set out to change that. 
  
  In the summer of 1996, Russell Odom asked then-Rep. Harold Ford Sr. to 
  put Lyons on the agenda for a meeting of the caucus. Odom said Lyons 
  would talk about issues of interest to the caucus -- nutrition, 
  education, and so on. Odom never mentioned Nigeria, Ford said. 
  
  As a member of Lyons' religious denomination, Ford set up the meeting. 
  
  Lyons addressed the caucus on a Wednesday in July. Instead of talking 
  about social issues, he argued that the United States should normalize 
  relations with the Abacha regime. 
  
  Few in the caucus would have considered that idea. Rep. Donald M. 
  Payne, D-N.J., then the caucus chairman, was the man who introduced a 
  bill to stiffen U.S. sanctions against the Nigerian government. His 
  successor, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., was a co-sponsor. 
  
  In an interview, Waters said she thought Lyons' stance was naive. 
  "I just feel that some of these people who lobby on behalf of Nigeria 
  really don't understand what they're doing. They're involved in an 
  international question that they don't understand the enormity of," she 
  said. 
  
  Still, she and others were livid over Lyons' presentation. They had no 
  idea Lyons was coming to speak on Nigeria. They felt blindsided. 
  
  "Maxine Waters and everybody else raised pure hell. I had to tell my 
  colleagues that I had nothing to do with it," Ford said. "I was totally 
  taken aback and felt like I was ambushed." 
  
  Did he know Lyons' account had received six-figure deposits from the 
  Nigerian government? 
  
  "No," Ford said. "Are you kidding me?" 
  
  Waters had a similar reaction. Asked what she would think if she found 
  out Lyons' account had received $350,000, Waters sounded stunned. 
  
  "What?" 
  
  There was a pause. 
  
  "What?" 
  
  And then: "I'd be shocked, I'd be absolutely shocked and pained," she 
  said. "I hope that is not true." 
  
  
  Lobby law 
  Any person who seeks to influence U.S. government officials "at the 
  order, request, or under the direction or control" of a foreign 
  government must register with the Justice Department as a foreign 
  agent. 
  
  Foreign agents are required to fill out extensive reports describing 
  who hired them, how much they were paid, which U.S. officials they met, 
  and what they discussed. 
  
  It's the law, and those who "willfully" violate it are guilty of a 
  felony. The punishment is up to $10,000 in fines, five years in prison, 
  or both. 
  
  Though prosecutions are rare, the purpose of the law is to deter other 
  countries from covertly shaping U.S. foreign policy through front 
  groups, disguised propaganda campaigns or the secret recruitment of 
  influential figures. The law was a response to just such efforts by 
  Nazi Germany in the 1930s. 
  
  Members of the Congressional Black Caucus said it was clear what Lyons 
  was trying to do. "We were definitely lobbied," Waters said. "He did 
  lobby us. I don't think he'd deny that." 
  
  
  Sessions with Clinton 
  In September 1996, about 20,000 members of the National Baptist 
  Convention assembled in Orlando for its 116th annual meeting. 
  
  Lyons introduced his guest of honor -- "our friend for many years" -- 
  President Clinton, who came seeking support from a key constituency for 
  his re-election. 
  
  The next day, Lyons spoke at length about Nigeria in his annual address 
  to the convention. According to the text of his speech, Lyons echoed 
  themes and arguments Dawkins and other Nigerian lobbyists had been 
  making for months. 
  
  "It is the contention of this country that due to the "infighting' in 
  Nigeria, America cannot allow its products and goods to be brought on 
  U.S. soil," Lyons began. "When the Chinese were committing their crimes 
  against humanity, did the flow of money brought by the exchange of 
  goods and services cease in America? . . . The answer is no! Only when 
  it is a black nation, managed by black people, does the nation of 
  America get involved to the point of negative impact on a people. The 
  stoppage of products, goods and services is hurting Black America and 
  it is killing Nigeria!" 
  
  Lyons announced that the convention's board of directors planned to 
  deliver a resolution to the White House and the Congressional Black 
  Caucus demanding a repeal of the U.S. sanctions against Nigeria. 
  
  In early November, Clinton returned to Tampa on a final campaign push. 
  He invited Lyons for breakfast in his hotel room. A few weeks later, on 
  Nov. 24, the Rev. Dawkins wrote a letter to Clinton asking him to meet 
  with Lyons and two other prominent black leaders "to hear another point 
  of view on Nigeria." 
  
  Julia Payne, a White House spokesman, said Lyons contacted the Clinton 
  administration about this time to discuss Nigeria. While the meeting 
  requested by Dawkins did not occur, Lyons spoke to officials in the 
  National Security Council about Nigeria, Payne said. 
  
  Lyons' efforts did not affect Clinton's policy. 
  
  "Our policy is unchanged," Payne said. 
  
  
  
  
  Big spending 
  On Feb. 26, 1997, a $100,000 check from the Permanent Mission of 
  Nigeria was deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund, bringing the total 
  payments to $350,000. 
  
  The Nigerian checks were made payable to the National Baptist 
  Convention Education Fund or, at least once, to the National Baptist 
  Convention Fund. 
  
  The Education Fund has come up before. Some corporations that signed 
  marketing deals with Lyons were asked to make their checks payable to 
  that fund. Lyons paid himself and his associates hundreds of thousands 
  of dollars in commissions from those corporate deals. 
  
  At the time of the third Nigeria payment, Lyons was spending heavily. 
  
  He and convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards were negotiating to buy a 
  $925,000 mansion in North Carolina. Also in February, Edwards bought 
  $130,000 worth of jewelry with money from an account she shared with 
  Lyons. Weeks later, Lyons and Edwards bought a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz. 
  Some of the money for these purchases came from the Baptist Builder 
  Fund. 
  
  Lyons also was paying large sums to Russell Odom, the West Palm Beach 
  minister who helped get Lyons interested in Nigeria. 
  
  Soon after each deposit from the Nigerian government, Odom or his wife 
  received payments from Lyons. After the $200,000 deposit, Deanna Odom 
  received $50,000 from Lyons. After the $50,000 deposit, Russell Odom 
  received $12,500. After the $100,000 deposit, Russell Odom got $26,000. 
  
  In an interview, Odom acknowledged that he received $88,500 from Lyons, 
  handled many of Lyons' dealings with Nigeria, joined Lyons in the 
  meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, has a long friendship with 
  Maurice Dawkins, and knows Col. Marwa, the defense attache who 
  orchestrated some of Nigeria's lobbying activities. 
  
  But Odom denied that the payments from Lyons had anything to do with 
  Nigeria, or lobbying. He also said he knew nothing of the $350,000 
  deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund. 
  
  "Dr. Lyons, to my knowledge, never got any money from Nigeria," he 
  said. "I don't know anything about any payments from Nigeria." 
  
  Odom said he and his wife were paid for consulting work they did for 
  Lyons on U.S. health care and social service programs. He declined to 
  give specifics. 
  
  Odom has described himself as a consultant before. That is the 
  occupation he mentioned to Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies on Aug. 
  10, 1996, when he was arrested for asking an undercover officer to sell 
  him "20 soft" -- street talk for $20 worth of powder cocaine. Odom 
  entered a rehabilitation program for first-time offenders. 
  
  Nigeria visit 
  On July 6, Lyons' wife set fire to a waterfront Tierra Verde home Lyons 
  co-owns with Bernice Edwards. Lyons was out of town. He got the news 
  when he called home from Nigeria, where he was on a 10-day visit. 
  
  He was there to make deals. He was interested in the oil and housing 
  markets and in the Nigerian Stock Exchange. 
  
  He also talked politics. According to press reports, he boasted that 
  the National Baptist Convention has "enough clout to block any 
  sanctions on Nigeria." He said he sent letters to 500,000 
  African-Americans describing the "real situation" in Nigeria. He 
  promised to pressure the Congressional Black Caucus to change its 
  views. 
  
  Lyons and his delegation -- Edwards, Odom and at least 10 other 
  ministers and business people -- traveled first-class. They flew in one 
  of Abacha's planes. Their limousines were led through the crowded 
  streets by police escorts. They stayed in a five-star Hilton. 
  
  The Abacha government paid for everything. 
  
  According to the statement from Lyons' office, the delegation's trip 
  "cost more $350,000.00 (sic) and encompassed actual on-site study and 
  analysis in the majority of the (Nigerian) states." That would mean 
  each member of the delegation spent more than $2,300 per day. The 
  statement did not say whether the $350,000 in Nigerian deposits -- 
  which began 15 months before the trip -- were intended to pay for the 
  trip's expenses. 
  
  When Lyons returned home, he said he liked what he saw. "I found it was 
  as different as night and day from what I expected," he said. 
  
  -- Times staff writers David Dahl and Katherine Gazella and researchers 
  Kitty Bennett and John Martin contributed to this report. 
  
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  ┬ęCopyright 1997 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.