An investigation by the Miami Herald provides new insight into an alleged "racy photo" cover-up that may have influenced Jerry Falwell Jr.'s decision to endorse Donald Trump for president -- and details on how Falwell, a notorious homophobe, came to invest in a gay-friendly hostel.
Michael Cohen, the now-jailed Trump lawyer, told actor-comedian Tom Arnold in a taped phone conversation in March that he had made a deal in 2015 to keep the photos from public view. Falwell, president of Liberty University, a fundamentalist Christian school founded by his late father, has denied the existence of such photos, telling conservative radio host Todd Starnes, "There are no compromising or embarrassing photos of me."
But photos viewed by the Herald are of Falwell's wife, Rebecca, "in various stages of undress," the paper reports. "It is not known who took the photographs or when they were taken, and the Herald was not given the photographs and therefore has not been able to authenticate them independently." In the conversation taped by Arnold, which he provided to the Herald, Cohen said the photos appeared to have been copied from someone's cell phone.
"It's happened to a couple of people I know, who are the wives of celebrities," Cohen told Arnold. "Their phones get hacked. ... My heart went out to Becky."
The alleged photo cover-up "roughly preceded" Falwell's endorsement of Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, the Herald notes. Getting his endorsement was important to Republican presidential aspirants, most of whom were seeking to appeal to the religious right.
Falwell had assured Rick Tyler, then a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, one of Trump's rivals for the nomination, that he would make no endorsement in the primary season, Tyler told the Herald. But then Falwell endorsed Trump in January 2016, just ahead of the Iowa caucus, the first event in the nominating process.
"Clearly, something changed that led him to endorse Trump, and I would like to know what that was," Tyler, now an MSNBC commentator, told the paper.
Tyler also saw something suspicious in Falwell's investment in a hostel in Miami Beach's trendy and LGBTQ-popular South Beach area. "You have the chancellor of the largest Christian university in the world in South Beach, which is not exactly a hot spot for evangelicals to take a vacation, [who buys] a piece of property for someone with no business experience. There is something odd there,'' Tyler said.
That someone is Giancarlo Granda, who became friends with the Falwells in 2012 when they stayed at Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hotel, where he was then a pool attendant. The following year, the Falwell family spent $4.7 million to buy the Alton Hostel, which provides low-cost accommodations to tourists in Miami Beach's trendy South Beach area. Granda received a 24.9 percent share in the property, also known as the Miami Hostel, in exchange for managing it, Falwell said in an affidavit filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, according to the Herald.
"It was an unusual partnership: The president of the largest Christian university in the world, a school that prohibits gay sex, agreeing to operate a Miami Beach hostel, regarded as gay friendly, in conjunction with a 'pool boy' with virtually no hotel management experience after they met at the storied Fontainebleau, a favored South Florida vacation ground for the Falwells," the Herald reports.
The matter is in court because of a lawsuit filed by Jesus Fernandez Jr., who claims he was deeply involved in planning the hostel deal but was cut out of it by Falwell. In a court document, Fernandez said he suggested a hostel as an investment when Falwell wanted to help Granda start a business. "I continued to provide information for the business plan to go forward," Fernandez wrote in an affidavit. "Falwell promised me I would have an equal share with Granda in the venture if it went forward." Fernandez was not included in the hostel deal.
Granda, through his lawyers, has denied any involvement in the photo matter, and Cohen also said in the conversation with Arnold that Granda had no role in it. The Falwells, also speaking through lawyers, declined comment to the Herald. The family's attorneys have previously described the Fernandez lawsuit as an attempt to obtain "a quick payday from a public figure."