When Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife Becki strolled around the Lynchburg, Va., campus of Liberty University, the evangelical school which Falwell led as president, they would play a secret game called “Would you rather.”
The middle-aged couple would point to students, men and women, and imagine what it would be like to have sex with them, according to a former student who said Becki told him about the game.
The former student, a member of a band with the Falwells’ son Trey, has said that Becki initiated oral sex with him while he stayed overnight at the Falwell home, following other attempts to seduce him. She confided to him the details of the game she and her husband would play, and told him multiple times how she and Jerry would take note of students’ appearances.
“Her and Jerry would eye people down on campus,” the former student, who was 22 when Becki performed oral sex on him and is now 32, said. “She didn’t go into specifics, but said, ‘Oh, me and Jerry play games all the time, like “Would you rather?” with people on campus.’ I’ll never forget that.”
A close friend and neighbor of the Falwells told POLITICO that Becki confided to her about the relationship with the student. When the friend warned that Jerry would be upset to hear about it, the friend said, Becki told her that the only thing Jerry would be upset about was that he didn’t have a chance to watch her have sex with the student.
The Falwells, in an emailed response to questions, said both the alleged game and the alleged confession to Becki’s friend were “completely false.”
Nonetheless, the suggestion that Jerry fantasized about watching his wife have sex with a student would appear to buttress the story of Giancarlo Granda, who met the Falwells when he was a 20-year-old pool attendant at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel and the Falwells were guests. He said Becki initiated a years-long relationship in which he had sex with her while her husband watched. While the Falwells have acknowledged a relationship between Becki and Granda, they denied that Jerry participated in it.
In a lawsuit filed against Liberty on Oct. 29, Falwell called Granda’s claims “outrageous lies” and asserted that Granda had sought to extort money from him. Falwell blamed Liberty for giving credence to Granda’s assertions.
“When Mr. Falwell and his families became the targets of a malicious smear campaign by anti-evangelical forces, Liberty University not only accepted the salacious and baseless accusations against the Falwells at face value, but directly participated in the defamation,” Falwell’s complaint declared.
Granda, however, told POLITICO that Jerry not only participated in his sexual relationship with Becki but would often “joke about having a crush on certain students.”
The Falwells’ interactions with Granda and other accusers may have been shielded from some of the Liberty community, but multiple former university officials and Falwell associates told POLITICO that Jerry frequently shocked them with risqué comments and, in at least two cases, showed off a photo of himself at the beach with his arms around two topless women. (The Falwells said the story about the photo was “completely false.”) His alleged comments included making open references to women’s appearances, discussing oral sex and offering a gratuitous assessment of his own penis size during his 13-year tenure as head of the evangelical university that his father founded, where sex is forbidden outside of marriage.
Now, following an episode this summer in which Falwell posted a photo of himself with his pants unzipped and arm around his wife’s assistant, Falwell has left his job and withdrawn from public life. Supporters of the university, which boasts it has more than 100,000 students, are left to wonder how to disentangle its reputation from that of the Falwell family, given that the two were synonymous for generations. And some are wondering why it took so long — and until a direct act by Falwell like posting a photo — for the university’s trustees to take any action.
A POLITICO investigation, including interviews with dozens of Liberty officials from Falwell’s time as president, found a university community so committed to the Falwell legacy that even trustees considered it unthinkable to exert power over the son and namesake of the university’s revered founder. Plus, the university employed at least 20 relatives of stakeholders — defined as senior administrators and the 32-member Board of Trustees, according to federal tax disclosures — which gave many leaders an incentive to stay on Falwell’s good side.
“I didn’t think there was proper oversight, or enough governance by the board,” said Glen Thomas, a Liberty alumnus and former board member whose father was a multi-million-dollar donor to the university. “The president, or the CEO, of a nonprofit should be working for the board to fulfill the mission of the nonprofit — not the opposite. I feel like the board was mostly on the sidelines. I call it having accountability with no authority.”
Thomas declined to go into further detail about his time on the board, saying he had signed a nondisclosure agreement. He, his brother and his father all left the board within two years of joining it in 2014.
Meanwhile, Falwell experienced so little oversight that he regularly used the university’s private jet for personal travel, often to Florida; kept five of his immediate family members on the payroll, including his 31-year-old son Trey at a salary of $234,310; sold a university-owned home to Trey; extended a university-backed loan to a family friend; rented university property on favorable terms to his former personal trainer; and used the university’s employees for renovations on his home, for which he repaid $175,000, among many instances when Liberty’s resources benefited the Falwells and their allies.
While Falwell’s personal behavior and self-dealing raised alarms among some Liberty loyalists, including people close to his father, they would leave the university — sometimes in exchange for severance agreements that included non-disparagement clauses — and keep quiet about their misgivings. Like many evangelicals, they had a skepticism about the mainstream media and feared outside retaliation against the university.
“The church has a bad habit of keeping things secret. They want to keep it in house, take care of it in house. And Liberty’s the same way. It wants to suppress things and keep things quiet — and that’s what they did with Jerry,” said Mark Tinsley, a former Dean of the College of General Studies at Liberty University who left in 2017.
No one doubted that Falwell, backed by the power of his last name, exerted more control than his nominal bosses, the trustees.
One of Liberty’s most high-profile supporters, board member Mark DeMoss, whose father had donated $20 million to Liberty for construction of DeMoss Hall, one of the largest buildings on campus, was pushed off the board in 2016 after questioning Falwell’s endorsement of Donald Trump over other Republican contenders for president.
DeMoss had once served as Jerry Falwell Sr.’s chief of staff, and chaired the executive committee of Liberty’s trustees when he was abruptly pushed out of the Liberty fold.
After Falwell surprised much of the evangelical world by choosing the twice-divorced Trump, an infrequent churchgoer, over numerous Republican presidential candidates with strong religious backgrounds and evangelical ties, DeMoss made the rare move of speaking publicly about the decision. He told The Washington Post that Trump’s behavior is “not Christ-like behavior that Liberty has spent 40 years promoting with its students.”
Seven weeks later, during the next meeting of the board’s executive committee, the board’s committee members asked DeMoss to resign as chairman. He opted to resign from the board of trustees soon after.
Over the last year, as questions about Falwell’s behavior began to bubble up in POLITICO and other outlets, Falwell utilized his close relationship with the executive committee to negotiate a deal that would grant him, Falwell said this summer, $10.5 million in severance if he were to leave the university. That alleged deal was unknown to some members of the board until Falwell’s actual resignation, according to two people who discussed the change with board members. Asked about the severance, a Liberty spokesperson said that Falwell will not receive $10.5 million, but is entitled to two years of his $1 million base salary plus “accrued retirement benefits” over 32 years of employment at the university. The amount of Falwell’s severance is now a subject of his lawsuit.
With Falwell gone, those same trustees announced plans for an independent investigation into Falwell’s conduct.
But given the insularity of the Liberty leadership, and its skepticism of outsiders, some with ties to the evangelical movement are already raising concerns.
Boz Tchividjian, a former Liberty law professor who is the grandson of the famed evangelist Billy Graham, has publicly questioned Liberty’s willingness to undertake a full accounting of Falwell’s behavior, warning that “independent investigations” are often conducted by law firms hired by trustees to protect institutions while betraying the victims. Tchividjian, who represents victims of sexual abuse in his law practice, discussed Liberty and the risks of internal investigations in a recent article for the Religion News Service.
“My experience is that a greater transparency oftentimes points to a more credible process,” Tchividjian told POLITICO. “That seems to be missing here, which is troublesome.”
By the age of seven, Jerry Falwell Jr. was joining his father, Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., on trips around the country to deliver grand sermons that helped raise cash for the family’s growing constellation of ministries, broadcasts and educational programs.
During one of these trips, Jerry Jr.’s mother Macel later recalled in her book, the elder Falwell was mingling with a crowd when he realized he had left his young son in charge of selling merchandise with a locked cash box. As he ran to the table to open it, he heard Jerry Jr. peddling the book to the crowd — “You need my daddy’s book!” — regardless of his lack of access to the cash box. Jerry Jr. had sold $2,500 worth of books and records, stuffing the money in his pockets and down his shirt.
It was an early sign of the salesmanship he would bring to the ministerial empire founded by his father.
The elder Falwell, who was born in 1933, diverged from the fire-and-brimstone sermons popular among evangelists, instead bringing a sense of calm and neighborliness to his sermons, which he marketed aggressively. He started Thomas Road Baptist Church in an old bottling factory in Lynchburg, Va., when he was 22. Within 15 years, he had built a many-tentacled ministry with thousands of members, a K-12 private school, Bible studies, and television and radio broadcasts that were syndicated across the country.
He was also a prodigious fundraiser, drawing in money from parishioners and television viewers willing to tithe and donate for the church’s range of offerings. And he expanded aggressively, often borrowing large amounts of money to rapidly build out his ministries.
In 1971, when Jerry Jr. was nine, Rev. Falwell decided to start a university. The 38-year-old preacher had himself attended an unaccredited Bible college, but he partnered with Elmer Towns, a Christian leader and academic, on an ambitious vision: building a nationally famous institution for evangelical Christians on a par with what the University of Notre Dame represented to Catholics and Brigham Young University for Mormons.
In its early years, Liberty taught students in Sunday-school classrooms and boarded them in an abandoned hospital and a local Ramada Inn, among other places. But the university advertised heavily on Falwell’s radio and television programs and, within five years, Liberty had enrolled nearly 2,000 students and was beginning to build out a campus.
As the university began to find its footing, Rev. Falwell gathered a group of conservative leaders and strategists in his office to discuss making an entry into politics, which he’d long worried would be toxic to his successful evangelical ministry.
Two things had led Falwell to reconsider. First, he found the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights deeply troubling, and a sign of larger moral decline across the country. Second, in 1978, religious leaders rallied against a proposed Internal Revenue Service rule that would have stripped some private schools of their tax-exempt status. The religious leaders flooded Congress with calls and letters encouraging lawmakers to speak against the IRS’s actions. Their success emboldened them.
A year later, during lunch break in Lynchburg, longtime conservative strategist Paul Weyrich told Falwell, “Jerry, there is in America a moral majority that agrees about the basic issues. But they aren’t organized,” Falwell Sr. later wrote in his autobiography. He and a group of fellow evangelicals decided to register the Moral Majority shortly thereafter.
The Moral Majority was both a fundraising behemoth and a rallying point for Christians to get involved in politics. As the group’s most high-profile leader, Falwell Sr. travelled the country, staging rallies and parades and helping to register new voters at churches. In 1980, the group threw its support fully behind Republican Ronald Reagan against the evangelical Democratic President Jimmy Carter. After Reagan won a surprisingly large victory, the Moral Majority took credit for mobilizing a new bloc of voters that helped him win Southern states that had four years earlier supported Carter, their fellow Southerner.
For nearly a decade, the Moral Majority built the foundation of today’s religious right. And, in the process, the Falwell family of Lynchburg became national celebrities. They befriended the Reagans and the Bushes, while Rev. Falwell became a familiar speaker at Republican National Conventions.
He was perhaps the most influential televangelist in the country, but televangelism was no longer a trusted form of religious uplift and activism. In 1987, the flamboyant televangelist Jim Bakker — who co-hosted a TV show with his wife, Tammy, and operated a Christian theme park — had lost his empire amid revelations that he had paid off his church secretary to keep quiet about their sexual encounter. Viewers began to wonder how much they really knew about these religious salesmen. Donations began drying up overnight, not just to Bakker but to Jimmy Swaggert — who contended with a sex scandal of his own — and others like Falwell Sr., who briefly took over Bakker’s ministry after the scandal broke.
That same year as the Bakker scandal, Rev. Falwell presided over the marriage of 25-year-old Jerry Jr. and 21-year-old Becki Tilley, the daughter of a Liberty donor. The couple had started dating when he was a law student at the University of Virginia and she was an undergraduate at Liberty. They bought a farm on a sprawling property outside Lynchburg, and Falwell Jr. soon took a position at Liberty alongside his father, helping to manage the school’s finances and provide legal advice.
Despite the allure of his sermons, Jerry Falwell Sr. lacked his son’s savvy as a businessman. To keep Liberty University alive, Falwell Sr. racked up more than $100 million in debt. At one point, Republican megadonor Warren Stephens’s financial firm lent Liberty $6 million, then foreclosed on part of the university’s campus when Liberty couldn’t pay back the debt, forcing students and faculty to move to other buildings on campus.
Jerry Jr.’s job was to help his father dig out of the financial quagmire. It required painful measures: Rev. Falwell canceled the national broadcast of his television show, which had stopped turning a profit. Together, father and son made cuts to the Liberty budget, gutting longstanding parts of Falwell’s ministry with hopes that Liberty would survive.
Nonetheless, in 1996, Liberty’s accreditor issued a public warning about the university’s creditworthiness — a potential death knell for the university if it didn’t pay off more of its debts. Falwell Sr. addressed the problem by embarking on two 40-day fasts, hoping God would show him a path forward.
Shortly after the end of Falwell’s second fast, a private plane arrived in Lynchburg carrying a check for $27 million. Falwell’s benefactor, insurance magnate Art Williams, would donate $70 million to Liberty, a bailout that turned around the university’s prospects. Falwell said receiving the money was “like being let out of prison.”
While the surprise influx of cash was crucial, the reverend credited his son’s business acumen with saving the family empire. “He is more responsible, humanly speaking, for the miraculous financial survival of this ministry than any other single person,” Jerry Sr. wrote in his 1997 autobiography.
Better times were ahead. In 2004, Liberty University entered the nascent online learning market. A close adviser of Rev. Falwell named Ron Godwin had, two decades earlier, spearheaded a remote educational program, first using VHS tapes sent via mail and later dial-up internet. These early efforts put Liberty ahead of its competitors when high-speed internet came online. Remote learning proved to be a financial boon. The university pitched its same message of “Christian excellence” to online students, promising a high-quality, affordable education — and today enrolls 94,000 students online, according to Liberty’s figures.
More than 86 percent of Liberty undergraduates receive federal student loans, and they carry a median debt load of more than $25,000 after graduation, according to federal data.
Falwell Jr. has long emphasized that his contribution to Liberty has been financial, especially through the school’s real estate investments, not spiritual, like his father’s.
“I have never been a minister. UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs,” he wrote last year on Twitter.
On May 15, 2007, Rev. Falwell woke up early, ate breakfast with Godwin, and went to his office, which was housed in a 1923 home originally built for Carter Glass, co-founder of the Federal Reserve. At around 10:45 that morning, Falwell was found unconscious on his office floor.
The reverend’s death, from heart issues at age 73, was unexpected. But he had long prepared for the moment. His elder son, Jerry Jr., would take over Liberty University, while younger son Jonathan, who had followed his father into the ministry, would assume the pulpit of Thomas Road Baptist Church.
Despite having been earmarked for the role, Jerry Jr. struggled to play the part of a university president. He lacked any sort of formality. He was stilted and awkward in front of a crowd.
Falwell rarely addressed the student body during his first year leading Liberty, where students gather twice a week for convocations featuring politicians and inspirational guest speakers like football quarterback Brett Favre. At the end of the year, Falwell — a self-professed advocate of “khakis and Crocs” — told the students in one of his few speeches how he’d hedged his bets in buying clothes for his new role.
“I decided to buy only three suits in case things didn’t work out,” Falwell said. “Those three suits have served me well this year, and thanks to my experience with you, I think I’ll go ahead and buy a few more.”
The clothing salesman, Falwell said, “could tell I really needed some help — he made fun of the way I tied my tie and taught me how to do it properly.”
Falwell never really got used to wearing a tie, but he did learn how to take command of Liberty. And he learned just how lucrative and luxurious the perch could be. He earned $205,951 over the first year following his father’s death, but his compensation rose to more than $1 million a year over the next decade.
A non-academic, he maintained a hands-off approach to faculty and staff, rarely appearing at meetings or dropping into buildings to hold court like his father often did. He usually moved throughout the day with only one other person, Becki, who worked out of a room next to his in the campus administrative building.
There were signs from the start that these Falwells — unlike the abstentious Jerry Sr. and Macel — weren’t entirely at home in the evangelical world. On occasions, two faculty members told POLITICO, they observed Falwell showing up to campus smelling like alcohol or slurring his words, and believed the pressure associated with being a figurehead leader had taken a toll on him.
In private, Falwell clashed with allies of his father, including Godwin, whom he had known since he was a child. As senior vice president and provost, Godwin felt the university should focus on growing its lucrative online school and doing more long-term business planning to ensure the university’s future, according to two people with knowledge of their interactions. Falwell’s top priority was expanding Liberty’s real estate investments, which include dozens of properties in and around Lynchburg.
Godwin, whose allegiance to Jerry Sr. was unquestioned, seemed at times to compete with Jerry Jr.
In the spring of 2014, Godwin appeared on pastor Benny Hinn’s radio program, where he appeared to speak favorably about a partnership between Liberty and Hinn. The partnership didn’t exist — Godwin later said he had been misled by a Liberty business partner who operated Liberty’s home bible studies program.
Jerry Jr. stripped Godwin of his title of vice president over the incident shortly after. By November, he had retired.
“Jerry said, ‘We can’t have somebody who’s going to do this,’ “ said one former Liberty administrator, referring to Godwin’s discussion of an alliance with Hinn without having consulted Jerry Jr. “Of course, it wasn’t that. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Jerry Jr. had consolidated administrative control of Liberty, but there were signs that the job was wearing on him. His weight ballooned, at one point reaching 240 pounds, and he was on blood pressure medication. In 2012, he suffered a mini-stroke shortly before Liberty’s commencement services, which featured then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Falwell vowed to overhaul his health and fitness. He touted his new regimen — which included protein smoothies and two sessions a week with a personal trainer — to students and local media, and reported having dropped 75 pounds.
He also cut a deal with the trustees to use the university’s private plane to fly to Florida, ostensibly to visit his cardiologist, who was located at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Miami, according to four people familiar with Falwell’s trips.
The conquering of his health problems seemed to give Falwell a new sense of importance — as did a burgeoning opportunity to make waves in politics like his father. Falwell had struck up a relationship with Trump and his entourage several years earlier, when he’d been invited to Trump Tower in the summer of 2012 for a meeting of evangelical leaders to test Trump’s appeal ahead of a possible entry into politics. While mingling in the lobby he met Trump fixer Michael Cohen, who helped the Falwells and their teenage daughter secure passes to see Justin Bieber on the Today show while in New York City, according to Cohen, who recounted the meeting in his recent book.
That fall, Trump travelled to Liberty to speak at its biweekly convocation, where Falwell called him “one of the most influential political leaders in the United States,” lavished praise on him for having “single-handedly forced President Obama to release his birth certificate” and considering a run for president, and presented him with an honorary Liberty business degree.
When Trump began floating a potential bid for president in 2015, Falwell again started to speak favorably of Trump. It was around that time, six former Liberty faculty and officials told POLITICO, that Falwell’s behavior began to change. He became more outspoken. He grabbed national headlines by telling Liberty students in the wake of the mass shooting by a radical Muslim couple at a social-services center in San Bernardino, California, that more people should have concealed carry permits to “end those Muslims before they walked in.”
His bravado earned him new fans among students. But it also drove rifts on campus, where those who didn’t support Trump saw his behavior as out of line with Liberty’s values.
“You can almost draw a line from his endorsement of Trump in early 2016 to his being much more, not just comfortable, but feeling invincible,” said one former Liberty administrator. “Because he was on an airplane with Donald Trump, and he’s at a rally, and he’s on TV.”
The Falwells were, increasingly, living glamorously. Falwell would speak to faculty about attending Elton John and Justin Bieber concerts, and sometimes going backstage, one former faculty member said. He told a reporter from Slate that he and Kanye West had “struck up a little friendship.”
Falwell’s children posted photos on Instagram of themselves travelling on private jets. And on more than one occasion, Falwell shared photos of his family’s yacht vacations in exotic destinations like Greece and the Bahamas, one of which — the photo that featured Falwell with his arm around his wife’s assistant — attracted national attention last summer and led to Falwell being placed on leave from Liberty.
“They all got careless in the social media age, and Liberty was doing so well financially that Jerry began to think he was invincible — and the board was satisfied with the school’s success in other financial metrics, and wasn’t paying attention,” the former Liberty administrator said.
As Falwell grew more confident, he seemed to take the support of Liberty’s board of trustees for granted. The Falwell name was so intertwined with that of Liberty that almost everyone else was simply a visitor to Falwell’s kingdom.
In 2016, DeMoss — who had spent years working closely with Falwell’s father — left the board in the wake of his criticism of Trump. But the split wasn’t just about Jerry Jr.’s endorsement of the New York real estate developer, a Liberty spokesman indicated to the Christian publication World Magazine at the time. Liberty was punishing DeMoss for his public break with Jerry Jr. over his leadership of the university.
“Mark DeMoss publicly communicated his concerns about Liberty University as chairman of the board’s executive committee. He shared a negative evaluation of Jerry Falwell, not as an individual, but concerning his presidential stewardship … of Liberty University,” the Liberty spokesperson said to World Magazine.
He wasn’t the first, or last, high-profile board member to resign. In addition to the Thomas family, which left Liberty’s board after disagreeing with its lax oversight of the university, two other close allies of Jerry Falwell Sr., Godwin and former Liberty executive vice president Neal Askew, resigned their trustee positions soon after DeMoss.
The resignations were a glaring sign of trouble, but no one felt comfortable speaking out. Instead, the departures helped Falwell tighten his control of the university.
To some Liberty faculty, the crackdowns on dissenting board members were a worrying indication that free speech — including any dissent from Falwell’s pro-Trump stance — was coming under threat. Already, faculty were required to alert President Falwell’s office any time they granted an interview to a journalist. And in 2016, the university administered a two-question survey to its faculty asking them to rate their views on political and social issues on a scale of 1-5, one being “Very Liberal” and five being “Very Conservative.”
“Everybody that I talked to took it as a threat,” said one former professor. The survey was anonymous, but faculty — who are not tenured, and work on a series of contracts that the university can choose to not renew with little explanation — were worried about Falwell loyalists monitoring their computers or email.
“We just assumed it was a scare tactic,” the former professor said.
But financially, Liberty continued to thrive. Its endowment grew by almost 20 percent between 2016 and 2017 alone, according to numbers released by the university. It was in the midst of a $1 billion expansion of its campus, and by 2017 it enrolled more than 110,000 students, including its online offerings, according to Liberty statistics.
Financial success seemed to embolden Falwell in his willingness to cut deals with family members and friends. Back in 2013, the university had extended a $750,000 loan to Falwell’s friend Bobby Moon to form a private construction company to work on Liberty’s upcoming billion-dollar expansion. The company, called Construction Management Associates, became Liberty’s biggest outside contractor, drawing in up to $75 million per year. Liberty also hired a crane company long owned by Moon and his family, CSE Inc., to work on Liberty’s library, adding to the payouts.
Falwell, most often with CMA, tackled lavish renovations for the university. Liberty rebuilt its football stadium, baseball stadium and nearly all of its major sports facilities. It built a new concert hall and added a gun club near campus on Liberty Mountain, where students can join a shooting team or take free concealed carry classes. Liberty renovated its basketball stadium at an estimated cost of $20 million, and then added a second, smaller basketball stadium next door for lower-profile games. Under Trey Falwell’s oversight, the Carter Glass house that used to be the older Jerry Falwell’s office was renovated into a “five-star” bed-and-breakfast for Liberty’s guests.
But Moon wasn’t the only person in Falwell’s orbit who received business while Falwell was running Liberty. Family members, board members and university administrators also landed jobs, contracts and other benefits.
Jerry and Becki Falwell’s former personal trainer, Ben Crosswhite, was sold a fitness facility on Liberty’s campus in 2013 that Crosswhite then partially leased back to Liberty for $575,000 over eight years, a sum that significantly cut the cost of buying the fitness center. (Liberty officials maintained the deal was still advantageous to them from a business perspective.)
Crosswhite declined to comment. In a recent interview with Lynchburg’s WSET news, he denied that the deal was to his advantage.
Liberty board members, their families and organizations associated with them have received an unusual number of payments from the university. In 2018 and 2019, Liberty made $70,000 in payments to the Gainey Foundation, a private foundation that is the main funder of a camp for Christian athletes owned by the family of Michigan-based board member Harvey Gainey, current chair of the board’s executive committee. In 2018, Liberty spent $135,525 with the Christian tour company owned by another board member. At least three additional board members have had spouses or children on Liberty’s payroll in 2017 or 2018.
Gainey and the board member declined to answer questions from POLITICO about the funds. A Liberty spokesperson said, “Like many other 501(c)(3) organizations with complementary missions, Liberty University has supported Gainey Foundation over the years and sent teams from the University in the summers of 2017, 2018 and 2019.” Liberty used the other board member’s tour company to send its women’s basketball team on a 12-day trip to Israel in 2018 to compete in a tournament and “visit various religious sites,” the spokesperson said.
In 2019, Liberty disclosed making 35 different payments and loans to spouses, children and other close relatives of top university officials, and their companies.
Liberty also repeatedly has paid money to firms owned by its employees, including Falwell’s two sons, Trey and Wes.
Thirty-one-year-old Trey Falwell is simultaneously employed by Liberty as a vice president at a salary of $234,310 per year while operating a real estate management company that oversees a shopping plaza owned by the university. The company, JF Management, was paid $46,340 in 2019. Trey’s wife, Sarah, who graduated from Liberty in 2015, is also employed by the university, holding the title of “Executive Director of Career Partnerships & Career Services” and earning $72,211 in 2019, according to tax documents and her LinkedIn profile. (Prior to working at Liberty, Sarah Falwell worked at Bobby Moon’s firm Construction Management Associates, the profile says.)
Another company, Cedar Ridge Management, is run by Wes Falwell and was paid upwards of $40,000 annually by Liberty in 2018 and 2019, according to Liberty tax filings. Wes Falwell, 27, also works in metal fabrication at Liberty, and was paid $78,489 in 2019 for that work. Cedar Ridge was started as “a property management company to provide services outside of his job description,” a Liberty spokesperson said.
“The arrangement was an attempt for Liberty University to obtain property management services at a market rate and stop utilizing employees for property management. This function has since been brought back in-house” for the properties that Cedar Ridge Management looked after, the Liberty spokesperson said. Wes Falwell’s wife Laura was also employed by Liberty in 2019, at a salary of $58,193.
Trey, Sarah, Wes and Laura Falwell did not respond to POLITICO’s requests for comment. Asked about Trey Falwell’s property management company, a Liberty spokesman said Falwell had started the company before becoming a university employee, that Liberty has always employed outside property management companies and that it is “simply not cost effective for owners of commercial real estate centers to use employees to do this sort of work.” Asked what Sarah Falwell’s job duties at Liberty are, the spokesman said that Liberty does not “provide detailed employee information.”
Becki Falwell has also been on the university’s payroll at points since her husband took over as president, and four of Becki and Jerry’s children and their spouses, out of five, were on Liberty’s payroll in 2019, according to the university’s most recent tax filing. Caroline Falwell, the child who is currently not on Liberty’s payroll, is a Liberty student.
Liberty also sold a three-bedroom home on 21 acres of land on its grounds to Trey Falwell in 2015 for $225,000, an amount it said was fair market value and, according to the real estate website Zillow, is reflective of property prices in the area. The university did not disclose the sale in its annual filings at the time.
“For an organization of this size there’s a truly shocking amount of dealing with insiders,” said Brian Galle, a former attorney in the tax division of the U.S. Department of Justice. “I don’t want to say that any of these transactions on their own are improper. But when you know an organization was founded by one leader, and you have his child running the organization, and you see page after page of transactions with insiders, you have to ask yourself, are any of these deals fair?”
John Gauger, Liberty’s chief information officer whom Falwell tapped to alter his Google search results after photos of him and his family partying at a Miami nightclub were released, also received business from Liberty beyond his paycheck. Liberty paid between $90,000 and $124,000 annually for services and at times rent in recent years to an IT firm owned by Gauger, in addition to his $252,810-per-year salary.
Gauger also played a role in Trump’s 2016 presidential bid: Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen hired him to help engineer early online polls in Trump’s favor during the 2016 election, court documents and media reports later claimed.
Asked about the payments, a Liberty spokesman said that “work done by John Gauger’s company was approved or requested by John’s superiors and was not done by John Gauger himself. In other words, Liberty was not paying John’s company for work it was already paying for by paying John’s salary.”
It’s not uncommon for Liberty to pay family members of its top administrators. The wife and son of David Nasser, the campus pastor who was once one of Falwell’s closest allies, were paid $67,619 and $25,550 by Liberty in 2019, according to tax records.
A Liberty spokesperson said neither Nasser is currently on Liberty payroll. “Rudy Nasser was a student worker in spiritual development,” the Liberty spokesperson said. “Jennifer Nasser has never been on Liberty’s payroll but she has provided decorating and design services on a contract basis.”
Over time, Falwell has increasingly leaned on perks from Liberty to lead a luxurious personal life.
Falwell flew his family via private jet to Key West, according to a photo posted online by one of his children, for the trip this summer on Liberty donor Rick Hendrick’s yacht where he took the photo of himself with his pants unzipped and his arm around his wife’s former assistant, holding a dark-colored drink he described in a caption as “black water.”
While many universities, such as Harvard, do not allow first class or charter travel for administrators, and those that do usually require advance approval for the flights, Falwell often classified his trips as business travel after he returned, according to a Liberty employee familiar with the university’s finances. He also flew other people on Liberty’s plane, in one case giving Granda, the former pool attendant, a ride on the jet from Virginia to Miami in 2013, Granda told POLITICO.
Falwell declined to comment on his use of the plane, and referred all questions about it to Liberty. A Liberty spokesperson declined to detail Falwell’s allowable use of the jet, but said, “The business and/or personal nature of [Falwell’s] travel is documented both initially and revisited in quarterly meetings to ensure all tax laws are complied with.”
“To the extent Jerry Falwell, Jr. traveled to have an executive physical required by the Board, such travel would be a business purpose,” the Liberty spokesperson said. “Jerry Falwell, Jr. has previously disclosed at least one trip to Miami involving university aircraft was for the required executive physical.”
In 2019, Falwell used Liberty’s construction services to perform $175,627 worth of repair and construction work on his family farm, which included a master bathroom renovation, according to tax forms and building permits. Liberty said that Falwell subsequently reimbursed the university for the total cost of the work last August. The university said that Falwell had a longstanding agreement with the board of trustees, dating back to at least 2012, that allowed him to access university construction services, the cost of which is then billed to him.
“Both Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Jerry Falwell, Jr. were subjects of numerous threats and law enforcement regularly was involved with uninvited visitors, suspected surveillance, suspicious activity, and alarms alerting at their private residences,” the university said in a statement to POLITICO. “In this environment, it was considered a security risk to have unknown contractors and workmen permitted in their private residence or even on their property. So as a precaution, the forces that do construction services for Liberty University can be deployed for maintenance, upkeep and renovation work.”
The university said that it provided construction services to the Falwells “as needed and requested” and that there was “no set pattern over the years” of how frequently that happened, a Liberty spokesman said. In response to questions about the construction, a Liberty spokesperson added, “The direct costs of all material and supplies was passed through to Jerry Falwell, Jr. together with a labor rate.”
The perks and the ever-grander lifestyle and salaries for family members attracted little pushback on campus because of Falwell’s tight control of the trustees and the fact that Liberty’s financial situation continued to improve. Though Falwell received widespread credit for reviving Liberty’s finances, the university’s growth — in particular its online learning operation — was also fueled by financial aid provided by the federal government to its students.
Over just the last three academic years, for instance, the university took in nearly $2 billion in federal student loans and nearly $300 million in Pell grants, according to a POLITICO analysis of Education Department data.
Liberty University is now one of the largest recipients of federal student aid money of any type of college or university in the country.
Even as Jerry and Becki Falwell maintained a relatively low profile among the university’s faculty, they frequently opened their farm to students — cultivating a role more like dorm parents at a small-town liberal college than executives of an evangelical behemoth, according to former students.
Becki’s close friend from the early years of Jerry’s presidency remembers how generous they were, particularly Becki. The friend herself was sometimes a beneficiary, as Becki was quick to pick up checks and assist the friend in her business. She recalled walking with Becki through a Lynchburg Walmart and seeing her quietly drop cash into the shopping carts of Liberty students.
Becki even let the friend use a space on her farm to meet with clients, during a time when Trey Falwell was a Liberty student and used an abandoned church on the property as a studio for his band practice. The friend, however, said she found the near-constant presence of the band members disruptive, and complained to Becki about the kids failing to flush the toilet. Becki stood up for the band, and the issue simmered between them until the friend began to wonder whether Becki wanted her off the property.
One day, Becki came knocking on her door: “My husband opens it,” the friend recalled. “She comes in. I’m sitting on a chair. Neither one of us was more than 115 pounds, I don’t think. She picked me up off the chair and grabbed me in this bear hug. And she’s bawling her eyes out. At this point, my husband goes upstairs. [Becki says] ‘You’re absolutely right I was being mean to you because I was.’ And that’s when she said she was having — I don’t know if she said an affair or ‘thing’ — with one of Trey’s band members, and she was afraid if she got after them, they wouldn’t hold the band practice there anymore and that she wouldn’t be able to see them.”
The friend said she advised Becki that she “had to stop it.”
“I just thought it was absolutely disgusting that she did this to what I saw as a child,” the friend said. “I kept saying, ‘If the National Enquirer finds out, this’ll be everywhere. Jerry will be ruined.’ I said, ‘You have to tell him.’ And she kept saying, ‘No, I’m not gonna tell him.’ And I said … ‘Yeah he might be mad, but you have to tell him.’ And we did this a few times, and that’s when she said to me — I’m almost exactly quoting — ‘Jerry won’t be mad that I did it. He’ll be mad that he didn’t get to watch. It’s always been his fantasy to see me with one of his students.’”
The friend said that she and Becki never again spoke about the sexual encounter. In the months that followed, the friend moved her business off of Becki’s property. Their friendship slowly died out until a chance encounter in 2016 caused them to renew simple pleasantries — sending birthday greetings or sharing the occasional photo of a new grandchild.
“I always tried to keep it arm’s length, because part of me has this nostalgic affection, but there’s another part of me that has great disdain for them,” the friend said.
In August, when news broke of Becki’s sexual relationship with Granda, who said he was 20 when he began an affair with Becki that included Jerry watching, the friend said “I knew as soon as I saw [the news]. I knew that it had happened. And I had no doubt in my mind Jerry had watched because of what Becki had said to me.”
Granda, however, was not a student at Liberty. On the other hand, the young man who shared his story with POLITICO — who said he was a 22-year-old member of Trey Falwell’s band when Becki performed oral sex on him — was a student at Falwell’s school. The friend’s “worst fear,” she said, was that the student’s life was deeply affected by Becki’s actions. (The student told POLITICO that he doesn’t feel the incident permanently upended his life, but he has struggled with depression in the years since his encounter with Becki Falwell.)
“That boy had haunted me, because I always wondered if she ruined his life. I always wondered and was sad for him,” the friend said. “So to read the story … it just broke my heart. I have off and on wanted to tell this story for almost 12 years, but I kept thinking it’s not my place to tell this story, to rat people out. It didn’t seem the right thing to do. … He shouldn’t have gone through what he’s gone through. I don’t want to go after the Falwells, I want to support this young man. It will be a regret of mine for the rest of my life that I didn’t stop her.”
While members of the Liberty staff and trustees do not appear to have had any direct knowledge about Becki’s relationship with the student, rumors nonetheless flew around the campus; POLITICO contacted the student in response to stories circulated by other students. Granda, for his part, waited years before publicly disclosing the sexual nature of his relationship with the Falwells, even though questions swirled about their closeness to him, including their investment with him in a Miami youth hostel — which the Falwells claimed was a way of supporting a promising young man whom they’d met on vacation.
In 2019 multiple news outlets reported that Cohen, Trump’s fixer, had bragged about helping to bury nude photos of Becki that had circulated among people involved in the youth hostel deal. In September of that year, POLITICO published an extensive exposé that covered many of Falwell’s self-dealings and recounted inappropriate behavior by Jerry.
“All he wanted to talk about was how he would nail his wife, how she couldn’t handle [his penis size] and stuff of that sort,” POLITICO quoted a former university official as saying in that September 2019 piece.
Since then, more stories have come to light. Becki’s friend recalled how the Falwells had an old Price of Admission sign decorating their home, and how Jerry told her, “Yeah, every time someone comes in, I say ‘Oh, that’s for blowjobs.’ ”
Jerry and Becki partied and danced with young people at Wes Falwell’s wedding at a Trump winery in Virginia, which was attended by Liberty students, two people present told POLITICO. “They were drinking, and definitely grinding up on students on the dance floor,” said one attendee, on the condition of anonymity. Granda described the behavior as inappropriate.
What was “strange” about the Falwell’s behavior, the first attendee recalled, was that it was noticeably different than the behavior of the bride’s parents.
The bride’s parents “were clearly true conservative evangelicals, not partying. They were sitting away from [the dance floor], observing what was going on. They were clearly not about drinking and dancing,” the wedding guest said. “That’s why it was noticeable that Jerry and Becki were one of the only older people dancing, in a sea of young people.”
Even as reports of the allegedly inappropriate comments and relationships of the Falwells ricocheted within Liberty’s community, the board of trustees took no official notice.
Board meetings at Liberty tended to be unusually quick affairs, people who had attended the meetings told POLITICO. Trustees flew to Lynchburg twice a year, met for the morning in one of Liberty’s newly constructed buildings — usually selected by administrators to show off the campus’ ongoing expansion — and began heading home by lunchtime. Presenters gave information via Powerpoint presentations, and even significant projects, like Liberty’s billion-dollar expansion plans, sometimes generated little discussion. (Some board committees have additional meetings outside the twice-a-year schedule, the Liberty spokesman said.)
But in August, when Falwell posted the freewheeling photo of himself on vacation, the directness of his act sparked anger in the evangelical community. Here was clear evidence of embarrassing behavior that couldn’t be blamed on the much-distrusted national media or the campus rumor mill. The board decided to place Falwell on leave. After Granda came forward to describe his longtime affair with the Falwells, the board asked Jerry to resign and, after a night of wrangling, he walked away.
In the first days after he left Liberty, Falwell gave a wave of interviews to the press and, borrowing the phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., declared himself “free at last” from his role as a university president. But on August 30th, less than a week after his resignation, Becki Falwell called 911 for help, saying her husband had been drinking “heavily” and had fallen down the stairs, causing “a lot of blood right now,” according to dispatch logs obtained by HuffPost.
In late October, Falwell turned on Liberty in a high-profile way, filing a lawsuit claiming that the university’s board had quickly seized on Granda’s story and forced Falwell to resign without an investigation. No board members reached out to ask him if Granda’s story was true, Falwell claimed. After he left Liberty, Falwell said in the complaint, he was defamed multiple times by Liberty, such as in an announcement about the internal investigation that said there had been a “lack of spiritual leadership” at the school.
“Certain key individuals” involved with decision-making at Liberty were “fulfilling a long-held goal” of forcing Falwell out of his family’s university, the complaint also claimed. “These individuals had engaged, or were engaged, in various illegal, unlawful, and immoral or otherwise dubious acts” that, if publicly known, “would unquestionably tarnish the reputation of Liberty University by association.”
The complaint said that because Liberty affirmed Granda, Falwell’s reputation is in tatters, making it difficult to attach his name to a new business and hurting his chances of securing a contributor role on cable news.
Falwell also turned on some former allies, including Nasser, who delivered a speech to Liberty students after Falwell’s departure that, he claimed, had the effect of validating unfounded rumors about him.
Within the board, a power struggle has now broken out over the future of Liberty, two people familiar with board members’ thinking told POLITICO. One faction, led by the executive committee that was so supportive of Falwell when he was president, believes that removing Falwell from his post was enough of a course-correction for Liberty. Others — including the board’s acting chairman, Allen McFarland, and high-profile faith leaders including Concerned Women for America President and CEO Penny Nance — believe Liberty needs make significant staffing changes and pivot back to its faith-centered roots.
Jerry Prevo, Liberty’s interim president, is said to be with the first faction. A close friend of the Falwells, Prevo has stepped into the role of interim president quietly and with few harsh words for his predecessor.
He has shown some signs of the devil-may-care attitude that Falwell displayed in recent years, current and former Liberty faculty told POLITICO. A little over a month after taking over the position, Prevo was at the White House, politicking in the Rose Garden as Trump announced he would nominate Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Prevo, McFarland and Nance declined to comment.
Even though Falwell oversaw a dramatic expansion of the university during his tenure—mostly through a huge boost in online students—demand for Liberty’s on-campus offerings has softened over the past several years. In 2019, the number of freshman applying for spots at the Lynchburg campus had dropped by more than 57 percent compared to three years earlier, according to the university’s financial disclosures. Liberty still ended up increasing the size of its freshman class each of those years by becoming less selective in its admissions; its acceptance rate increased from about 20 percent to about 51 percent.
Even longtime boosters of Liberty, some of whom have family histories with the university, have grown concerned. Some say it could take changes as drastic as the entire board resigning to course-correct Liberty.
“In my opinion, Liberty has really struggled with leadership in recent years and as a result the work culture has suffered on a number of levels,” said Tchividjian, the former Liberty law professor and grandson of Billy Graham. “I can say first-hand that Liberty has many amazing hard-working people who are the real heart and soul of the institution. Because of that, I’ve always thought that Liberty has amazing potential — but such potential can only be realized after a number of fundamental changes have been implemented within the organization and culture.”