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— A former San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau executive has become enmeshed in a sex-and-money church money church scandal that's making headlines in Florida, Wisconsin, and Tennessee.

"Baptist Leader Linked to Second Woman Who's Not his Wife," read the headline in a July 19 issue of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "Church faces financial questions; Group loaned Brentwood woman money for a $300,000 house," trumpeted the Tennessean on July 17.

The "second woman" and the "Brentwood woman" are one and the same: Brenda D.

Harris, 47, one-time national sales manager for the San Diego ConVis. The Baptist leader linked to her is the embattled president of the National Baptist Convention (nbc), USA, Inc., Dr. Henry J. Lyons.

Despite speculation to the contrary, Harris denies she's had an affair with Lyons, head of the largest black church organization in America. "Categorically there is no romantic relationship between me and Dr. Lyons," she said by telephone this week from Nashville. "There is a business-professional relationship. There is a friendship, but there is no romantic relationship."

Lyons, 55, first made headlines on July 6, when his wife of 25 years, Deborah, was arrested for arson and burglary. She'd allegedly ransacked and set fire to a $700,000 Tierra Verde, Florida, home - a home Lyons owns jointly with nbc public relations director Bernice Edwards. Pinnelas County sheriffs told the Tampa Tribune that Deborah told them Bernice Edwards was her husband's mistress.

Deborah Lyons later recanted that statement. But since then, a tidal wave of controversy surrounding Lyons has kept his name on the front pages. The publicity has strained his relationship with the 8.5 million-member National Baptist Convention. Now the controversy has dragged Brenda Harris into the mire.

From 1990 to 1993, Harris had been instrumental in creating a special office at San Diego's ConVis targeting African-American convention business. The next year, when she closed the deal on the 30,000-strong National Baptist Convention for the San Diego Convention Center, she so impressed Lyons, elected president of the National Baptist Convention in 1994, that he hired her for his own organization. In September 1995, she became the nbc's executive director of conventions and meetings.

The twice-married Harris, who was raised in California and still owns a home in Oceanside, long dreamed of matching convention business with African-Americans. In 1989, as a single woman, she started her own small business, Harris Travel Management Associates. During 1990, her work attracted the attention of a ConVis executive.

"We really didn't have any African-American business to speak of until Brenda," says Sandra Butler, now vice president of sales at ConVis Hawaii. "I was impressed with her communication skills. I suggested that the [ConVis] position would offer her a platform from which she would advance rapidly if she wanted to go back into business for herself. I was not surprised that [Reverend Lyons] was impressed with her."

Harris's Web page bio, part of the nbc's Web site, says she booked over $128 million in convention business for San Diego during her tenure.

"She is incredibly articulate, incredibly bright, outgoing, and just someone that you wanted to admire, look up to," says Elliott Lawrence, who took over Harris's job when she joined Lyons. "I'm filling some very big shoes."

Lawrence says he and Harris worked closely together to develop an organization called the San Diego Chapter of the Black Hospitality Professionals. "She originated the organization. I worked with her to try to build more African-American participation in the hospitality industry," he says.

Bringing the National Baptist Convention to San Diego was a feather in Harris's cap, Lawrence says. "The nbc is one of the largest religious African-American conventions in the United States. Any [ConVis] person would go after that piece of business because it brings in somewhere around 25,000 to 30,000 people. I've been out [to Nashville] and visited her in her office. She works very hard. You can imagine." The last time he saw Harris was in San Diego about three or four months ago. "Everything seemed to be fine."

* * *

Harris's troubles began in late 1995, when she had moved to Nashville and wanted to rent a house. According to the Journal-Sentinel, the house's owners, Kurtz and Janet Lytle, balked after they discovered Harris had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in 1991. She had listed unpaid debts of $48,000. Finally, chairman A.H. Newman of the National Baptist Convention provided written assurances that the rent would be paid. Convention president Reverend Lyons cosigned the lease.

Just eight months later, Harris bought a two-story brick house in trendy Brentwood, south of Nashville, for $340,000. She paid $102,000 in cash, with a $238,000 mortgage, according to county records researched by the Journal-Sentinel. Four months previously, the Journal-Sentinel reports, the nbc adopted a resolution, dated January 23, 1996, promising "any financial assistance in the form of a guarantor, or cosignator toward a loan" necessary to help her buy a home.

The nbc was still $3 million in debt from an ambitious building program started in the '80s. But Lyons told local papers the loan to Harris was necessary to entice such a talented professional. "We had to sweeten the pot," he said.

Some on the nbc's board, including the Reverend Fred L. Crouther, chairman of the board's finance and budget committee, knew nothing about the resolution to help Harris. "That's news to me," Crouther told the Journal-Sentinel late last month.

Harris denies she received any financial assistance to buy the house. "nbc did not help me pay for that house," she says. "That is something that has been very distressing for me. I earned my money. I had a clause in my contract with them that said they would agree to guarantee a loan for $300,000 if I needed it. But once I started to apply for the house, I was able to get it with my own credit; I did not need their guarantee. I used my own money."

But St. Petersburg Times and Journal-Sentinel reporters uncovered tax records showing Harris's 1996 property taxes of $2124 were paid by the National African-American Church Council, a body related to the convention.

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