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ADL gets its money back amid flap over donations to churches

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 (JTA) – The ceremony at New York’s Marriott Marquis hotel last November marked a high point in black-Jewish relations. After a spate of arson attacks, the Anti-Defamation League and the National Urban League had teamed up to raise more than a quarter of a million dollars to help rebuild burned-out black churches. At a news conference that gained national coverage, the civil rights groups presented an oversized check for $225,000 to the Rev. Henry Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention. They later sent additional donations, bringing the “Rebuild the Churches Fund” total to $244,500. Weeks later, Lyons wrote to the ADL that six Alabama churches each received $35,000 and a seventh was due to receive $15,000. But now, the churches are claiming foul play – and ADL has gotten its money back. Lyons delivered less than a quarter of the money designated to rebuild the churches, his lawyer admitted this week after initially denying the charges as another attempt to smear Lyons. Lyons survived numerous attempts recently to oust him as president of the Baptist group as he battled charges of infidelity and mishandling church money. The admission came after a Tampa Tribune article, published last week, quoted pastors as saying they had only received a fraction of the money that Lyons had promised – or none at all. Now, ADL has closed the book on the episode, reclaiming the unspent money to deliver directly to churches in need. But Florida prosecutors are not ready to walk away. They opened an investigation this week into the affair. In an unapologetic letter to Abraham Foxman, the national director of the ADL, that labeled the organization’s contributions “de minimis,” Lyons’ attorney, Grady Irvin, said the National Baptist Convention had delivered $189,500 to Irvin’s office. The rest had been delivered to the churches. After receiving a letter of inquiry from ADL last week, Lyons gave Irvin the money to place in an escrow account. Irvin gave Foxman two choices: ADL could have the money back or Irvin would dispense it to churches that provide invoices for costs incurred in rebuilding. But in his letter conveying the offer, Irvin took a shot at ADL that has enraged the leadership of the organization. After noting that two other funds had raised millions of dollars for the same cause, Irvin wrote, “As you know, in comparison to the millions of dollars received by other organizations, the NBC received a de minimis (but yet important) sum of $244,500.” In another similar effort, the American Jewish Committee, the National Council of Churches and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had teamed up to administer an $8 million fund for burned churches that included foundation contributions, individual donations and in-kind contributions from companies such as Home Depot. That fund has distributed all of its money, according to Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious relations at the American Jewish Committee. Foxman, who has refused a request by Lyons for a meeting, wasted no time demanding the money back. “Our concern is that the money in fact be delivered to the institutions,” Foxman said in a phone interview. As for the swipe at the amount of money ADL raised, Foxman said, “In order to defend their wrongdoing there was no need to be nasty.” Irvin later sought to clarify his intent in another letter to Foxman. “The comment, which was simply to contrast the millions of dollars raised by other organizations (and not minimize the commendable efforts of ADL) seems to be taken out of context,” he wrote. “As a former fund-raising professional, I recognize first-hand the efforts necessary to raise donations.” In the letter, Irvin recounted a trip to Israel in the early 1980s to discuss race relations in the Israeli workplace and wrote, “Personally, I can think of no instance in which your organization’s efforts have not had my admiration.”