On Monday, Politico Magazine published an account from “more than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials” detailing a culture of self-dealing and intimidation fostered by Jerry Falwell Jr., the prominent Donald Trump supporter and president of the country’s largest conservative evangelical university.
The story, reported by Brandon Ambrosino, painted an image of a hypocritical Christian leader who bucked his father’s more religious mission in order to chase profit and political power.
The allegations, piled atop previously reported accounts of suspicious business deals by Falwell, were numerous. Here are some of the highlights.
Reuters reported in May that former Trump lawyer (and current federal prisoner) Michael Cohen had helped Falwell deal with the fallout from some scandalous photos. The Miami Herald confirmed in June that the photos existed, and that some of them featured his wife, Becki. And according to Politico, Liberty officials said Falwell showed or sent male friends and associates, including at least one Liberty employee, photos of Becki “in provocative and sexual poses.”
As Ambrosino wrote:
At Liberty, Falwell is “very, very vocal” about his “sex life,” in the words of one Liberty official—a characterization multiple current and former university officials and employees interviewed for this story support. In a car ride about a decade ago with a senior university official who has since left Liberty, “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,” this former official recalled.
Politico also reported that Falwell once accidentally sent a photo of his wife in a French maid costume to several people. He had meant to send it to their personal trainer to thank him for helping his wife get in shape, according to a university employee. Falwell denied that the incident occurred.
Speaking of Falwell’s wife, the article reports that Becki helped her husband edge out his brother Jonathan in taking full control of the university, which has more than $3 billion in assets and is generally thought to be extremely important as a representative of evangelical voters in the world of conservative politics. Jonathan Falwell was meant to be Jerry Falwell Jr.’s religious counterpart, according to Ambrosino, as it’s Jonathan who leads the megachurch that was associated with their father, the late Jerry Falwell. Jonathan was meant to watch over the school’s religious elements while his brother handled the secular matters. But according to Politico, “after Falwell’s death, Becki pushed to shrink Jonathan’s role at the university—a move current and former Liberty officials described as the start of Jerry and Becki consolidating power.”
Jerry Falwell Jr. bought the church’s properties, the K–12 school associated with the church, and a couple of other properties related to Jonathan’s influence. “Jonathan complained but never stood up to [Jerry] because he knew [Jerry] controlled the purse strings,” one source said.
According to Ambrosino, it wasn’t just Liberty University officials but regular residents of Lynchburg who were afraid to talk about Falwell, “fearing Falwell would take revenge upon them and their families.”
Most of the allegations in the Politico story deal with Falwell’s business negotiations, several of which involved his family and friends. Most notably, Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell III, or Trey—now a vice president of the university—started a company in 2012 that manages properties, including a shopping center owned by the university. Falwell sending university business to a company his son owned could be a violation of the rules governing a nonprofit university.
In another questionable deal, Falwell directed Liberty University to sell a university exercise facility to his personal trainer—the same one who was the alleged intended recipient of the French maid photo. According to Ambrosino, one official said the facility was “specifically built …for Jerry and Becki to train privately” with the trainer. After two years, Liberty offered to sell the property to the trainer, with the promise that the university would pay him upfront, so the school could keep using the facility under his ownership for seven years after the sale—a deal that cut the trainer’s buying price roughly in half. One official said no one else was allowed to bid on the facility. (Falwell defended the deal by saying the property had been a “drain on University resources” and that handing over the facility’s management to another party would ultimately save the university money.)
Other allegations involved Liberty University loans to Falwell’s friends. And in one alleged abuse of his position, Falwell asked employees to promote a La Quinta Inn, which his business associate owned, on the university’s website. Trey Falwell is also a silent shareholder in the hotel. (Jerry Falwell said he does not benefit from the hotel’s business.)
RedFinch LLC and Michael Cohen
It was already reported early this year that Cohen hired a business owned by Liberty University employee John Gauger to sway the results of certain online political polls in Trump’s favor. This was in 2014 and 2015, while Trump was mulling a presidential run but before he was a candidate. (A comical detail: Cohen paid Gauger a fraction of what he promised, but as additional compensation gave Gauger a boxing glove that he claimed to be valuable because it was worn by a Brazilian mixed martial arts fighter.) But according to Ambrosino, Trey Falwell was with Gauger when he traveled to meet Cohen for the payment, and the younger Falwell posted a photo on Instagram of a pile of cash on a hotel bed—evidence that Trey might have been more involved in the scheme than the Falwells let on.
Jerry Falwell has been a proud Trump supporter, and he claims that he makes political statements in support of the president not as the head of Liberty University but as a private individual. (Nonprofits are not allowed to endorse political candidates.) But in 2014, the university tweeted one of Gauger’s rigged polls urging people to vote for Trump, describing him as one of the country’s top business leaders. The university defended the action, saying it was not political behavior, as Trump was not yet a candidate, and that it was meant simply to thank Trump for speaking at the school. But by that point, Cohen had already hired Gauger (whose company did work for Falwell beyond his university job), and if Trey knew about the deal as a Liberty VP, it seems likely that politics motivated high-ranking Liberty University officials.
Liberty University does not allow its students to drink and frowns on dancing. In 2014, Jerry and Trey Falwell traveled to Miami and were captured in photos dancing at a nightclub there. (Jerry denies that he was at a nightclub.) To deal with photos’ appearance, multiple staffers said that Falwell asked Gauger—whom they described as filling a role that could be described as Falwell’s “fixer”—to push the pictures down in Google searches.
Other Trump Advocacy
In 2017, Becki Falwell asked the university’s lawyers to look into whether they could sell Trump-related T-shirts and hats on campus during graduation weekend. “It’s great advertising for Liberty to be on products with Trumps name,” she wrote. She later told Liberty University officials that she had gone over designs of the hats and T-shirts with Michael Cohen. The resulting merchandise largely mimicked Trump campaign branding with “Liberty University Commencement 2017” added in smaller letters.