Falwell sues Liberty University, claiming defamation
Ex-Liberty president also alleges former business partner conspired against him with anti-Trump PAC
Jerry Falwell Jr. filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Lynchburg against Liberty University, claiming his former employer made defamatory statements about him. He also alleges in the lawsuit that his former business partner, Giancarlo Granda, who had a highly publicized affair with Falwell’s wife, has conspired against Falwell with “politically motivated backers,” including the political action committee The Lincoln Project.
Falwell seeks punitive damages and attorney’s fees from Liberty University, according to the suit filed in Lynchburg Circuit Court, as well as a trial by jury. He is represented by Moneta-based attorney James I. Gilbert IV and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, a Los Angeles-based law firm. Gilbert directed all media inquiries to a Leesburg public relations firm, ProActive Communications, which provided a copy of the lawsuit.
Although Liberty is the only defendant named in the defamation and breach of contract suit, Falwell alleges misdeeds by others, including The Lincoln Project, a PAC led by several high-profile Republicans that has spent considerable funds this year to defeat Trump’s re-election, and Granda, a former business associate.
In the suit, Falwell claims that he and his family were “victims of an ongoing extortion scheme” by Granda, a former pool attendant and business associate of the Falwells who said in interviews with Reuters this summer that he had engaged in a long-term affair with Falwell’s wife, Becki, with the full knowledge of Falwell Jr., the former president and chancellor of Liberty University. Granda alleged that Falwell Jr. sometimes watched Granda and Becki Falwell having sexual relations, an accusation that Falwell Jr. has vehemently denied. Falwell has acknowledged in earlier interviews and in the lawsuit that Becki Falwell engaged in an “inappropriate relationship” with Granda, whom they met in 2012 while staying at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel.
Granda, Falwell says in the suit, is represented for free by Kurt Bardella, president of Arlington-based media firm Endeavor Strategies and a senior adviser for The Lincoln Project. Bardella is arranging Granda’s press interviews and advising him, according to Falwell’s lawsuit, which also states that Granda’s attorney, Aaron Resnick of Miami, introduced him to The Lincoln Project personnel and has also been financing Granda’s personal expenses. Bardella declined to be interviewed Thursday.
“There is no connection to The Lincoln Project,” Granda wrote in an email to Virginia Business on Thursday. “I have received no financial compensation – none – for coming forward and telling the truth about the long-term affair with Becki, … Jerry’s hypocrisy and the Falwells’ abuse of power.
“Jerry is attempting to portray himself as a victim. No one should be fooled. The real victims are the Liberty University students, faculty and staff who have been intimidated into silence under his tenure. … I stand by all my statements.”
In a statement, The Lincoln Project responded to the suit: “The Lincoln Project didn’t make Mr. Falwell sit in the corner. The Lincoln Project didn’t make Mr. Falwell unbutton his pants on a super yacht and post a picture on social media. The Lincoln Project didn’t make Mr. Falwell stand with Donald Trump, though that now makes sense; they are kindred spirits. The Lincoln Project has had nothing to do with the public finally learning about the true character of the Falwell family.”
The PAC’s statement refers to a previous scandal this year over an Instagram photo Falwell posted of himself and his wife’s assistant in which their pants are unzipped during a yacht party. Falwell is holding a glass of dark liquid that looks like an alcoholic drink, but Falwell joked in the caption that the drink was “black water” and “a prop.”
The lawsuit alleges that “when Mr. Falwell and his family became the targets of a malicious smear campaign incited 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.”
In the 29-page complaint, Falwell says that he told an unnamed “top official who was then, and is now, a member of the university’s board of trustees” about the affair before Falwell resigned and that “not one member of the board or the executive committee asked Mr. Falwell about the veracity of Granda’s lies.” The suit also says that Falwell still has not been asked about the allegations, which have been public for more than two months.
Falwell further alleges that “certain key individuals directly involved in the decisions and actions to force Mr. Falwell’s resignation and then defame him were fulfilling a long-held goal” to end Falwell’s 32-year career at the university. The suit says “these individuals,” whom Falwell does not name, “had engaged, or were engaged, in various illegal, unlawful and immoral or otherwise dubious acts in their stewardship of other institutions and otherwise which, if known to the public generally, would unquestionably tarnish the reputation of Liberty University by association.”
Falwell resigned Aug. 25 as president, chancellor and member of the university’s board of directors, after a 13-year tenure as leader of the private Christian institution.
Falwell, who received his J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law, served as the university’s legal counsel before taking over the helm as president in 2007 after his father’s death. The Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. founded Liberty University, then known as Lynchburg Bible College, in 1971. Under Falwell Jr.’s leadership, the school became one of the largest Christian universities in the world. With more than 110,000 students enrolled, most of them online, Liberty is Virginia’s largest school by enrollment and is the nation’s second-largest online university, behind the University of Phoenix.
Falwell is broadly credited for bringing Liberty out of deep debt to its current financial strength, including a $1.59 billion endowment as of 2019. The university also completed more than $1 billion in construction projects and built an impressive athletics program.
In the lawsuit filed Thursday, Falwell characterizes Granda as an “unstable and manipulative individual who saw the Falwells’ kindness, and his involvement with Mrs. Falwell, as opportunities ripe for exploitation.” The suit further alleges that the couple “have been the victims of an ongoing extortion scheme by Giancarlo Granda — efforts which have recently been absorbed into a smear campaign by political operatives who are opposed to Mr. Falwell’s support of President Trump,” referring to The Lincoln Project.
In June 2020, according to the lawsuit, Falwell told Granda “in no uncertain terms that he would not be extorted, no payments would be forthcoming, and Granda should cease and desist from contacting him” A short time later, the suit alleges, “Granda — backed by The Lincoln Project — embarked on a hit job against Mr. Falwell in the press.” On Aug. 24, Reuters released its interview with Granda, who claimed that he had an affair with Becki Falwell for six years, from the time he was 20 years old in 2012, and that Jerry Falwell Jr. watched them have sex. Falwell, in the suit, says the affair ended in 2014 and that he never participated by watching, calling the allegation “outrageous, false and defamatory lies.”
The suit also alleges Granda repeatedly threatened to publicize the affair in 2014 unless the Falwells gave him “large sums of money, ranging from $600,000 to $2 million” and that Granda sold “intimate pictures of Mrs. Falwell” to friends, who then tried to use those photos to extort the Falwells for money.
In the interview with Reuters, Granda said that he did not try to extort money from the Falwells but said he was trying to extract himself from a soured business deal and relationship with the couple. In 2013, a shell company, Alton Hostel LLC, purchased a Miami Beach youth hostel for $4.65 million, with Jerry “Trey” Falwell III listed as its sole manager. According to a 2017 Politico article, Granda managed the hostel, and Falwell III was given the money to purchase the property by his father, Falwell Jr.
Granda told Reuters that he had a falling-out with Jerry and Becki Falwell in 2018 after he wanted to “negotiate a buyout” and sever ties with the couple. In a June 2020 text message from Granda to Falwell that was shared with Reuters, Granda wrote, “Since you’re okay with ruining my life, I am going to take the kamikaze route. It really is a shame because I wanted to reach a peaceful resolution and just move on with our lives but if conflict is what you want, then so be it.”
Liberty, Falwell argues in the lawsuit, “turned on Mr. Falwell and forced his resignation as university president and chancellor. Liberty conducted zero investigation into Granda’s lies and willfully ignored information demonstrating their falsity.”
“The university also moved quickly to destroy Mr. Falwell’s reputation in the Liberty community and nationwide,” Falwell alleges.
During a broadcast event held the day after Falwell resigned, Liberty campus pastor David Nasser apologized for Falwell’s behavior, saying, “It’s okay to call sin, sin. You know why? Because it is the only way to actually start to deal with it. It is not love to simply stay in the dark, and not call shameful what God calls shameful. And if we’re not willing to stand on that truth, then what in the world are we calling ourselves Christians for in the first place?”
Granda, the suit states, acknowledged in an ABC News interview that he is being represented by Bardella for free after Granda was introduced to The Lincoln Project personnel by his attorney. “The Lincoln Project’s animosity towards Mr. Falwell presumably arises from the fact that President Trump’s evangelical support is often attributed to Mr. Falwell’s early endorsement of him during the 2016 primaries,” Falwell’s lawsuit says.
Falwell’s 2016 endorsement of Trump’s presidential run surprised many onlookers, who expected the Liberty president — if he did choose to endorse a candidate — to back U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the conservative Christian son of a pastor. Cruz had solicited Falwell’s support of his presidential candidacy. Trump spoke at Liberty’s 2012 convocation ceremony, and in 2017, as U.S. president, he was the university’s graduation speaker. Falwell addressed the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination convention.
At the time of his resignation, Falwell already was on an indefinite paid leave of absence as president and chancellor of the university. The move followed an uproar over the Instagram photo.
In recent weeks, Falwell was paid approximately $2 million in severance by Liberty University, which also announced it has launched a third-party investigation into financial and real estate dealings at the university during Falwell’s tenure as president. The public accounting firm hired to conduct the probe, Baker Tilly US, has made available through Dec. 20 an encrypted website to allow anonymous whistleblower complaints focused on financial misconduct by “current or former members of university leadership.”
Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb said in an email that the university has not been served with the suit and that it would need to “read and review a lawsuit before making comment.” He added that the Liberty “Board of Trustees are busy at work in session for the next two days for their fall meetings.”
In a statement, Falwell lead counsel Robert Raskopf of Quinn Emanuel said, “We attempted to meet several times with the Liberty University Board of Trustees’ Executive Committee but were unsuccessful in doing so. Thus, we were forced to seek remedy for Mr. Falwell’s ongoing injuries and damage to his reputation through the court.”
Falwell added in a statement, “Other than God and my family, there is nothing in the world I love more than Liberty University. I am saddened that University officials, with whom I have shared so much success and enjoyed such positive relationships, jumped to conclusions about the claims made against my character, failed to properly investigate them, and then damaged my reputation following my forced resignation. While I have nothing but love and appreciation for the Liberty community, and I had hoped to avoid litigation, I must take the necessary steps to restore my reputation and hopefully help repair the damage to the Liberty University brand in the process,” he concluded.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported in error that Jerry Falwell Jr.’s lawsuit against Liberty University alleged that the university was conspiring with an anti-Trump political action committee. This is incorrect.