A convicted prostitute who had a 40-year career at Lilly Endowment Inc. secretly worked with a prominent Florida pastor to defraud the Indianapolis-based charitable foundation out of tens of thousands of dollars, the Tampa Bay Times reported last week.
Rochelle McCanns, 70, started as a receptionist at the endowment in 1975 and worked her way up to the position of grants payable administrator before she retired in 2015.
According to lengthy investigative piece by Times staff writer Corey G. Johnson and other reporters, McCanns was involved in a decades-long relationship with the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, a charismatic pastor who was president of the National Baptist Convention, or NBC—the nation’s largest black religious group—from 1994 to 1998.
Lyons, now 76, was indicted by federal prosecutors for fraud, extortion, money laundering, conspiracy and tax evasion in 1998 and spent five years in prison after misappropriating more than $4 million from the organization during his leadership.
Federal investigators found Lyons funneled at least $20,000 in NBC money to McCanns in 1996, including $10,000 donated by the Anti-Defamation League to rebuild black churches damaged by arson.
McCanns, however, was barely investigated at the time because the amounts she received were relatively small compared with the millions of dollars that Lyons was found to have pilfered.
Lyons found himself in hot water again last year when he was fired as pastor from New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa amid accusations of theft and misconduct. And again, McCanns was involved.
Records show McCanns and Lyons worked together to have $138,600 in Lilly Endowment grant money paid to not-for-profit affiliates of New Salem.
The grants were made as part of the endowment’s matching gift program, which matches employee contributions to charities on a $2-for-$1 basis. McCanns oversaw the matching gift program for employees in her final position before retirement, the Times said.
McCanns signed forms for each grant that certified that she personally made an initial grant to qualify for the matching funds.
The money was supposed to go to several social causes, including food for the poor, after-school programs and day care. But about $94,000 was diverted into other funds controlled by Lyons, according to the newspaper's investigation.
A secretary at New Salem told newspaper investigators that Lyons instructed her to send money to McCanns on a regular basis. McCanns, she said, would use the money to make the donations in order to qualify for the grants.
N. Clay Robbins, CEO of Lilly Endowment, confirmed that it made the grants to the New Salem entities as part of program it has operated for more than 30 years.
In a letter, Robbins said the payments were made after the endowment “received signed certifications from officials of the organizations that Ms. McCanns had made matchable contributions to them. Before the payments were made, the Endowment confirmed that these organizations were exempt from federal income taxation under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).”
He called the matter “disturbing” and said the endowment was looking into it.
“We would be deeply disappointed if it is proven that an employee broke our trust and misused philanthropic funds,” he wrote. “We are taking appropriate steps in response to the situation.”
Robbins confirmed the dates of McCanns’ employment, but said the endowment wouldn’t provide personal information about past or present employees.
According to the Times, McCanns was arrested 56 times for prostitution under the name Beverly Bell between 1967 to 1969 and served two years in prison.
Not long after her parole, Charles G. Williams, a Lilly Endowment vice president who died in 1990, hired McCanns as a receptionist. He later made her an assistant to the program officer working with black churches.
McCanns met Lyons in the 1970s when he was pastor of St. Petersburg’s Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church and visiting Indianapolis.
Rev. Melvin Girton, a retired Indianapolis pastor and historian for the NBC, told the Times that an attraction developed between Lyons and McCanns, who was divorced.
Lyons began visiting Indianapolis frequently and seeing McCanns at her apartment.
The pastor was living high-end lifestyle by the 1990s and known for showering female friends with gifts. He was married for the third time when he became NBC president, but still counted McCanns among his closest friends.
She was among only a few people authorized to see Lyons in prison, a designation he didn’t even give to his third wife.
McCanns, who lives in Brownsburg, told IBJ she had no comment about the Times story, other than to say the “charges are unfounded.” She said she wanted “to be left alone.”
An attorney for Lyons told the Times that the pastor had done nothing wrong at New Salem.