Jerry Falwell Jr. has sued Liberty University, the evangelical school co-founded by his father that he led for more than a decade before resigning in August after a series of personal scandals.
Falwell claims Liberty damaged his reputation, alleging the university accepted without verifying what he called false statements made by a man who had an affair with Falwell’s wife and attempted to extort the couple, according to the complaint.
The complaint alleges that the man, Giancarlo Granda, worked with political operatives opposed to President Trump, including the Lincoln Project, on his “defamatory media campaign” against Falwell.
“Other than God and my family, there is nothing in the world I love more than Liberty University,” Falwell said in a news release Thursday from a law firm representing him. “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.”
Falwell’s departure in August generated shock waves because of his stature in parts of the evangelical world. Liberty has long been a power center for conservative Christians, and Falwell’s endorsement of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 was seen as a pivotal moment for the candidate, one of the earliest signs of support from a prominent evangelical leader.
Scott Lamb, a spokesman for the university, said Liberty “leadership teams have important responsibilities this week, serving the Board of Trustees who are in Lynchburg … This lawsuit will be read and reviewed in a timely manner, and I would imagine a public response will be given at that time.”
Falwell and his attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday. But in the news release, attorney Robert L. Raskopf said they had tried unsuccessfully to meet with the executive committee of the school’s board of trustees before filing the suit.
Jerry Falwell Jr. resigns as head of Liberty University, will get $10.5 million in compensation
Falwell, a lawyer and developer, had been admired by many at Liberty for transforming a college mired in debt into a booming 85,000-student university with political clout, a Division I football team and a beautiful campus.
But he generated controversies as well over the years, for comments and actions criticized as racist or anti-Muslim, and some students and alumni worried that the school had weakened its commitment to Christian values.
In August, Falwell was suspended with pay after posting on social media, and then deleting, a photo of himself with his wife’s young assistant that showed their zippers partially down and their stomachs exposed.
Pressure to resign grew intense after a young businessman publicly claimed that he had had an extramarital affair involving both Falwell and his wife, Becki.
Granda, a former pool attendant, alleged he was involved in a nearly seven-year-long affair with the couple in which he had sex with Becki Falwell while Falwell Jr. watched and sometimes recorded. Becki Falwell acknowledged the affair to The Washington Post, but both she and her husband denied that Falwell Jr. was involved.
The couple told The Post that the affair had lasted one or two years and that Granda had tried to blackmail them.
Falwell told The Post in August that he was resigning in part because he did not want to bring embarrassment to the school because of his wife’s behavior.
The Falwells, the pool attendant and the double life that brought them all down
Falwell’s complaint was filed Wednesday in a Virginia circuit court. A copy of it includes some redactions in sections that cited Falwell’s employment agreement with Liberty.
In the document, Falwell claims no one from Liberty’s board of trustees asked him about Granda’s allegations and that the university accepted what he called false statements without investigating their veracity, forcing his resignation.
It also claims the university began a campaign to destroy Falwell’s reputation, citing a speech made during a school convocation in August in which the school’s senior vice president for spiritual leadership spoke of Falwell and “sin,” as well as a news release from Liberty that said he lacked spiritual stewardship.
The lawsuit claimed Falwell was targeted by a “malicious smear campaign incited by anti-evangelical forces.”
On Thursday, Granda said his story was not connected to the Lincoln Project and that he received no financial compensation for coming forward. “Jerry is attempting to portray himself as a victim,” he said in response to the lawsuit. “No one should be fooled.”
The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump political action committee, also denied involvement, saying in part, “The Lincoln Project has had nothing to do with the public finally learning about the true character of the Falwell family.”
Falwell’s 2016 endorsement of Trump came not long after Michael Cohen, who was then Trump’s personal attorney, said he helped the Falwells cover up compromising photos.
Falwell’s ties to Trump had added to the aura of invincibility that came from his family name. His father, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., was a prominent leader of the religious right, a televangelist who helped found Liberty University with a mission of “training champions for Christ.” His brother, the Rev. Jonathan Falwell, is senior pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., where their father was founding pastor.
After their father’s death in 2007, Jerry Falwell Jr. became president of Liberty, and the public face of the university.
When he resigned in August, Falwell said his contract entitled him to a $10.5 million severance package in part because he left the school without admitting to or being formally accused of wrongdoing.
Liberty named Jerry Prevo, a pastor from Alaska who had been serving as chairman of the school’s board of trustees, as acting president. The board launched an independent investigation to examine university operations during Falwell’s tenure.
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.