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.