TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ The nation's largest black denomination chooses a new leader from 11 candidates Thursday in an election that could indicate how far the organization will go to prevent the kind of abuses committed by its imprisoned former president, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.

Many of the candidates vying for the presidency of the National Baptist Convention USA say the group needs to reduce the power of its leader to avoid a repeat of the Lyons episode. He was convicted of bilking companies of more than $4 million to live in luxury.

``The reason Henry J. Lyons is not on stage with us today but in a bunk in a jail cell is the system,'' said the Rev. Jasper Williams of Atlanta, who unsuccessfully sought to have Lyons ousted in 1997 as he came under state and federal investigation. ``This system will corrupt any man no matter how good his intentions are.''

Some, however, said the organization's problems left with Lyons.

``Dr. Lyons had problems and he did some wrongs,'' said the Rev. Roscoe Cooper of Richmond, Va. But he added: ``It's a lie to say that our convention is in bad shape.''

About 60,000 delegates and guests are expected at the group's annual meeting. The convention, which traces its roots to 1880, claims 8.5 million members, though at Lyons' trial prosecutors said the figure was inflated to attract businesses. They said membership is around 1 million.

Lyons, 57, resigned after he was convicted in February of swindling $4 million from businesses and keeping nearly $250,000 contributed by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith to rebuild burned black churches in the South.

Lyons, who was paid $100,000 as president, is serving 5 1/2 years in state prison. He also pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion and fraud charges and is serving a concurrent sentence of four years, three months.

During a forum Tuesday, all but two candidates, one of whom was absent, referred to the Lyons scandal. While none said they could excuse Lyons' actions, some said they supported him during his legal troubles because he was the group's leader.

During Lyons' tenure, attendance at the convention-operated American Baptist College in Nashville, Tenn., declined, and loans to settle lawsuits are coming due. Still, Lyons helped reduce the group's debt on its Nashville headquarters from $6 million to less than $3 million.

``I do believe he gave us the energy to reach higher heights,'' said the Rev. Edward V. Hill of Los Angeles, a candidate who said he always would consider Lyons a friend. ``If you let me, I think I can continue the tradition of climbing higher and higher.''

Other candidates said the convention's president wields too much power. Many board members are appointed by the president, and the president also has control of the group's finances.

The Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson of Mount Vernon, N.Y., described the presidency as an ``imperialist institution'' and advocated dismantling a ``rubber stamp wimp board'' by having board members elected to defined terms. Richardson also fought for Lyons' ouster during the investigation.

``The convention must change the way we conduct our business,'' said another candidate, the Rev. A. Russell Awkard of Louisville, Ky. ``It is possible for the president to be respected.''