Big Wheel

Local Baptist preacher Acen Phillips has a passel of fancy cars and a devil of a history in court.

The Reverend Henry Lyons, the embattled president of the nation's largest black denomination, has come under fire in recent weeks for driving a Rolls-Royce that he allegedly purchased with church funds. Perhaps when Lyons is in town this week for the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention USA, he can trade driving tips with one of his Denver brethren, local convention organizer and fellow Rolls enthusiast Acen L. Phillips.

Because at last count, the Reverend Phillips had not one but two Rolls-Royces, one for him and one for his wife, Emma. And registration filings with the Colorado Motor Vehicle Division suggest that his East Denver church has been blessed in the automotive department as well.

State records show that Phillips's Mt. Gilead Baptist Church is the proud owner of one Rolls-Royce, along with at least four Mercedes-Benzes and two Jaguars. Three of the vehicles--a 1988 Jaguar, a 1982 Mercedes and the '77 Rolls piloted by the Reverend Phillips--are registered to the church daycare center.

How all of these cars were paid for, who drives them all and whether they actually are used to serve the needs of daycare kids is unclear. Phillips, a prominent leader in the local black community who has served as president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance and who delivered a "special prayer" at Mayor Wellington Webb's 1995 inauguration, did not return repeated calls seeking comment for this story.

However, a yen for expensive vehicles isn't all he and Lyons appear to have in common. Both men have seen their financial dealings called into question, even as they have assumed leadership roles in their churches and in their communities.

As an estimated 40,000 Baptist conventioneers prepare to hit town this week, the sensational foibles of Henry Lyons are expected to take center stage. The St. Petersburg, Florida, preacher, who serves as president of the National Baptist Convention, is now under investigation for allegedly using church money to make a down payment on a $700,000 condominium with his mistress, a convicted embezzler. He also reportedly dipped into church accounts to provide her with a $36,000 diamond ring. When Lyons's wife found out about the affair, according to prosecutors, she torched the love nest, igniting a scandal that has raged on the nation's front pages just as the church is preparing for its annual meeting. That convention was awarded to Denver after Mayor Wellington Webb, himself a Baptist, pledged to raise $50,000 in cash for the church's scholarship fund.

By comparison with Lyons's situation, Acen Phillips's troubles have remained largely out of the spotlight. A lengthy Rocky Mountain News profile of the minister published this past Sunday devoted a scant three paragraphs to noting that Phillips was indicted--and acquitted--on a federal bank embezzlement charge in 1977 and to the fact that many members of the black community lost money in 1969 after the minister helped sell them on a plan to buy stock in the Dahlia Shopping Center. "In those days, our community didn't clearly understand buying stock," the paper quoted Phillips as saying with regard to the shopping-center venture. "They didn't understand the value of stocks. They'd rather buy booze."

However, public records indicate that the longtime senior pastor at Mt. Gilead, a fifth vice president in the national church, has had considerable trouble sorting out his own financial affairs. He has been sued repeatedly in local courts, has had liens filed against him by state and federal officials for unpaid taxes, and in one civil lawsuit was found by a judge to have defrauded a woman who came to him for a loan.

The fraud allegations came in a suit filed by Dorothy F. Williams, a Denver woman who had come to Phillips to borrow money and wound up in financial ruin. In 1985 she sued the minister and several other people, including Phillips's son Del T. Phillips, accusing them of defrauding her. A judge agreed with Williams, noting in a written ruling that, rather than being helped out of her financial difficulties via the minister's intervention, she lost her house and was forced into personal bankruptcy. Williams also wound up owing more than $21,000 to a nonprofit corporation that the judge said was controlled by the Reverend Phillips.

In a ruling handed down in January 1987, the judge said that the company to which Williams ended up owing money, D.T.P. Ministries Inc., had made as many as 24 consumer loans to individuals, which it was not authorized to do under state law. He also found that Acen Phillips and D.T.P. Ministries, an "educational and religious" organization that he described as the minister's "alter ego," had charged Williams, a divorced mother of three children, an interest rate in excess of the state's legal limit of 21 percent. The judge ruled Phillips liable for fraud, breach of contract and "unconscionable conduct" for his role in what the court described as a scheme to drain Williams's assets.

According to the judge's ruling, that scheme included a maneuver under which Acen Phillips and two other defendants gave the woman an $11,900 loan, which they then paid for by taking out a bank loan themselves and using Williams's house as collateral. The defendants never told Williams that the bank loan they had taken out had an interest rate two percentage points lower than what they were charging her, the judge said. He added that Williams placed her trust and confidence in Phillips because he was a minister.

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