Big Wheel

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.

Efforts to contact Dorothy F. Williams were unsuccessful. The attorney who handled the case for Williams, Judith Keene Rosenblum, says she believes that the law firm for which she was working at the time came across Williams through a bar-association program designed to provide legal help to people who can't afford an attorney.

"I remember not getting much cooperation [from the defendants]," Rosenblum says. "I remember walking away feeling sad for Dorothy." Court records show that a writ of garnishment was issued against Phillips and several other defendants for $43,880. Rosenblum, whose efforts to collect part of the judgment from the Western States Baptist Convention were rebuffed by the court, says she doesn't know if Williams ever got paid.

The Williams suit is just one of the cases filed against Phillips in the Denver courts. Records show the minister has been the loser in at least four other lawsuits filed against him. In three of those cases--including one in which a Denver woman accused Phillips and others of ripping her off at what was described in court documents as a family-run Texaco station--default judgments were entered against the reverend when he failed to respond to court pleadings. In January 1991, a county court judge found Phillips in contempt for his refusal to cooperate and issued an order instructing peace officers to cite the minister if they came into contact with him.

The case in which Phillips was found in contempt was a dispute with a law firm over an unpaid legal bill. It eventually was settled for about $6,800. The reverend wound up on the hook for considerably more in the gas-station suit, which was filed in 1986 after a woman named Joan Moland took her car to the station complaining of a "knocking" noise in her engine.

According to a complaint filed with the court by Moland, a station employee diagnosed her knocking problem by telling her she needed an entirely new engine. She agreed to have one put in, but after receiving the newly repaired car--which she claimed included several jobs not agreed to in advance--she reported hearing the same knocking sound. The court later entered a default judgment against Phillips for $16,454; court records indicate that a writ of garnishment was served on the minister at Mt. Gilead.

Phillips has also taken his knocks from government tax collectors. Records on file at the Denver Clerk and Recorder's office show that a $350,359 lien was placed on his property by the Internal Revenue Service in January 1994 for unpaid taxes dating back to the 1980s. In September 1991 the State of Colorado placed a lien against him for $32,355 in unpaid taxes, according to records at the Arapahoe County Recorder's office. There is no official record of those liens having been released; officials at the IRS and the Colorado Department of Revenue decline to comment on whether the reverend has paid his overdue taxes, citing privacy restrictions.

For the IRS or any other creditor, collecting from Phillips could be made tricky by the fact that he lives in a church-owned house and drives a car registered to the daycare center. Little other information about the minister's financial dealings appears in court files, in large part because he so often has not bothered to put up a defense. However, after the judgment had already been entered against him in the Texaco station case, Phillips agreed in September 1987 to answer written questions from one of Moland's attornies. (He did so after a judge threatened to hold him in contempt.)

That question-and-answer session provided a rare glimpse at how the minister handles his money. According to what Phillips told Moland's attorney at the time, he had no bank accounts, owned no real estate ("I live in church parsonage"), owned no automobiles, owned no household goods or furniture and had a gross monthly income of only $800. He said that Emma was a housewife who had no income. When asked if he had any outstanding judgments, Phillips responded that he owed the IRS $56,669. How he managed to rack up such a large tax debt while living an apparently frugal existence was not explained.

The reverend's tax debts could be related to his frequent business dealings, which have included the Dahlia Shopping Center effort, an apparent one-time interest in the Texaco station and the consumer loans that were issued through D.T.P. Ministries. More recently, Phillips appears in state corporation records as the agent for a business called Discount Park and Ride Inc.

Phillips's church has been active on the financial front lately as well. Mt. Gilead, now reportedly under the leadership of Del T. Phillips, already owns several pieces of real estate in the metro area, including the $158,000 home on East Iowa Avenue in Aurora where Acen and Emma Phillips live. The church also is listed as the owner of a two-unit residence at 36th and Grape streets in Denver, which Emma listed as her address on the registration for a 1985 Jaguar and which also was given as an address by the couple's son Acen Phillips Jr. when he was sued in 1992 for writing a bad check to a local dry cleaner.

Now the church is branching out. Real estate records in Arapahoe County show that in the past two years Mt. Gilead has spent more than $600,000 to purchase two residential homes in Aurora, one of which was sold to it by pop singer John Denver. That home, on East Cedar Avenue, was purchased for $310,500 in October 1996, according to a property transfer record. County records indicate that another home on East Cedar Circle, which backs up against the Aurora Hills Golf Course, was purchased in the church's name for $326,000 this past July.

What the church plans to do with those residential properties is uncertain.
The annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention gets under way Monday at the Colorado Convention Center.


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