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Political evangelical leader, dedicated Trump supporter and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. has recently been generating more headlines than usual, and each additional report makes it harder to keep up with the scandals.
Falwell, one of America’s most prominent right-wing Christian leaders, is under scrutiny after a string of news stories accusing him of shady real estate deals, hypocritical personal choices, alleged self-dealing to profit his family and creating what employees call a culture of fear at his Lynchburg, Virginia-based school.
Last week, nearly a decade’s worth of email exchanges with university colleagues that were reviewed by Reuters revealed that Falwell had disparaged students and staff at the Christian university, referring to one student as “emotionally imbalanced and physically retarded” and calling the campus police chief a “half-wit.” Liberty’s general counsel, David Corry, told Reuters that the school wouldn’t respond “without knowing the details or seeing email chains in their entirety.”
Just days earlier, Politico published an exposé in which more than two dozen current and former unnamed Liberty officials described “a culture of fear” at the school, with various individuals alleging that Falwell would discuss his sex life with employees in graphic detail and that he improperly diverted school resources to projects in which his friends and family would make personal financial gains.
Unnamed school officials said in the Politico story ― written by Liberty alumnus Brandon Ambrosino ― that Falwell’s behavior does not match the standard of conduct that they expect from someone leading one of the world’s largest conservative Christian universities.
Politico’s Sept. 9 story also included allegations that Falwell and members of his family visited a Miami Beach nightclub in 2014. Falwell denied the visit and said the photos were “photo-shopped,” but one day after the Politico story appeared, the owner of Miami photography firm World Red Eye published even more photos of such an incident. Liberty University does not allow students to engage in co-ed dancing or drinking.
Falwell told The Associated Press that he wasn’t going to “dignify the lies that were reported” in Politico’s piece and dismissed the reporter as a “little boy.” He also said he’s asking the FBI to investigate what he claimed was a “criminal” smear campaign against him by disgruntled former employees as part of an “attempted coup,” which he further claimed was at least partially motivated by his support for President Donald Trump.
Dozens of students at Liberty University protested last Friday in the wake of the Reuters and Politico reports, some calling for an investigation and others defending the university president. Falwell tweeted after the protest that he was “so impressed” with how students behaved at the demonstration. That was a half-hour after he tweeted a meme making fun of people who protest against him.
Corry, the general counsel, provided HuffPost with the university’s lengthy statement in response to the recent media reports. The university alleges that it provided that information “on the record” to Politico, Reuters and The Washington Post for their stories.
Liberty University was founded nearly 50 years ago by Falwell’s father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. The senior Falwell was a Southern Baptist pastor, televangelist, Moral Majority leader and political activist who helped fuel the rise of today’s religious right.
Falwell Jr. has followed in the footsteps of his father ― who died in 2007 ― by combining religious, educational and political activities. Liberty, an influential institution in conservative politics, has more than 100,000 students (most of whom are enrolled online, according to Politico).
Unlike his brother, Falwell Jr. never became a pastor. When their father died, Falwell Jr. took over the university while Jonathan Falwell took over Thomas Road Baptist Church, the megachurch in Lynchburg that their father helped found in the 1950s. But in the larger public sphere, Falwell Jr. is still seen as a leader in the evangelical community.
He is an ardent supporter of Trump, who has divided the evangelical community, with progressive evangelicals and evangelicals of color speaking out against a president they believe doesn’t fit their moral standards. Trump has spoken at Liberty University several times, at one point encouraging students to rally in Washington in support of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
But the recent allegations against Falwell have almost nothing to do with his support for Trump, and the reporting dates back further than the stories published last week.
Last year, BuzzFeed reported that a Florida lawsuit highlighted the relationship between the Falwell family and Giancarlo Granda, a young pool attendant they befriended while staying at a Miami Beach hotel in 2012 and later backed in a business venture involving the purchase of a hostel. Falwell filed an affidavit saying he used his own money to lend $1.8 million to the $4.65 million hostel project, which is co-owned by his son.
In January, The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s former personal fixer Michael Cohen hired Liberty employee and private consultant John Gauger to manipulate some polls to favor Trump ahead of his presidential campaign. Half a dozen high-level sources at the university told Politico that Gauger was accompanied by Falwell’s son Trey when traveling to New York to collect payment from Cohen.
In May of this year, Reuters reported that Cohen ― who helped arrange Falwell’s endorsement of the president during his campaign ― gave Falwell a hand in getting rid of what Cohen reportedly called racy “personal” photos in someone else’s possession in 2015. Cohen, who is now in prison, recounted the alleged favor in a March 25 recording secretly made by comedian Tom Arnold and reviewed by Reuters. Falwell declined to comment to the news organization, though he told Todd Starnes of Fox News Radio that there were “no compromising or embarrassing photos.”
On Aug. 27, Reuters reported that Falwell and his wife, Rebecca, helped steer a $1.2 million piece of university property to their personal trainer and Liberty graduate Benjamin Crosswhite. Records reviewed by Reuters showed that Falwell had approved a deal in 2016 to sell Crosswhite an 18-acre fitness facility owned by Liberty. The deal was reportedly financed by the university, with the trainer putting no money down. Liberty told Reuters the deal was beneficial for the school. The university’s response regarding Crosswhite is also detailed in its media statement.