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‘They thank me’: Jerry Falwell Jr. says Liberty community still embraces him

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Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., right, and his wife, Becki, at a town hall at a convocation at Liberty University on Nov. 28, 2018.

In an interview, Falwell said nothing to discourage that notion. The 58-year-old son of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. said he has been suffering from blood clots since last fall but plans to “definitely” have more of a presence on campus as his health continues to recover.

“The employees and the board have been nothing but supportive, 100 percent. The students all want to get their picture with me. They thank me,” Falwell said.

Falwell said he and Liberty’s board had also resolved a dispute over his severance payment, which Falwell said last fall amounted to him being owed $10.5 million after being let go from Liberty. Falwell had signed the contract, which included newly generous terms for severance payments, with Liberty’s executive committee just a year before he was asked to resign.

“The contract was terminated without cause. I’m entitled to full severance,” which includes two years of pay and retirement benefits, Falwell said. He declined to say how much the package is ultimately worth, but said it amounts to more than $9 million. “And the university board admitted there was no fireable offense and they were reacting more to the press and the Twitter mob than anything else,” Falwell said.

A spokesperson for Liberty University, the nation’s largest evangelical institution of higher education with more than 100,000 students, did not respond to questions from POLITICO. Last fall, the university said Falwell was entitled to significantly less money than he claimed.

Throughout the Liberty community, there’s an ongoing reckoning about the direction the school should take, as well as how to address accusations from last summer that Jerry and Becki Falwell had behaved inappropriately around young people, including one former Liberty student who detailed a sexual encounter he had with Becki Falwell at the family’s farm to POLITICO.

Reformers among Liberty’s staff and alumni argue that the university has overlooked the allegations. An investigation launched by the board into Falwell’s tenure at the university is ongoing but appears to be narrowly focused on the question of Falwell and other administrators’ use of university funds — a subject on which Falwell has long expressed confidence of his exoneration. Meanwhile, one of Falwell’s close allies — Rev. Jerry Prevo, the 76-year-old former board chair — is running Liberty as president and CEO and Falwell’s two sons are still employed there.

“Without a thorough investigation into allegations of misconduct and sexually predatory behavior by the Falwells, they shouldn’t be allowed around students,” said Dustin Wahl, co-founder of Save71, a group of pro-reform Liberty alumni. “That’s the opinion of our organization, and it’s also just basic logic for a university with a lot of young people.”

Despite Falwell’s efforts to emphasize his continued connection to Liberty, current and former faculty, administrators and students interviewed by POLITICO say they do not expect him to resume his duties as the university’s president. But they are perplexed by his repeated appearances on campus and increasingly skeptical that Liberty’s board of trustees will undertake a widespread effort to weed out people who worked with Falwell as he allegedly behaved inappropriately and mismanaged the school’s finances.

As of 2019, at least five Falwell family members were on Liberty’s payroll, the university maintained at least $36 million dollars in business with a construction firm started and owned by a close Falwell associate and Falwell’s sons maintained outside jobs partnering with businesspeople who relied heavily on their contacts with Liberty. In addition, questions were raised about Falwell’s use of a university donor’s yacht for family vacations, and his frequent personal trips on the university plane.

Such actions, critics note, went largely unchecked by Liberty’s board of trustees, some of whose businesses and family members also had financial relationships with Liberty.

Last fall, the board announced details of an investigation led by the accounting firm Baker Tilly that is probing Liberty’s business dealings. People were encouraged to report information about anything “illegal, unethical from a business perspective, or improper in the context of the operation of a non-profit organization,” according to information on an online portal established by the investigators. But sexual harassment complaints, allegations of discrimination or harassment or other areas where Liberty “has an established complaint process or procedure” should go through usual channels, the investigators wrote, excluding many of the allegations against Falwell and his wife from the probe.

In addition to Becki Falwell’s alleged relationship with a student, the Falwells came under criticism for their relationship with a former pool attendant at a Miami hotel, Giancarlo Granda, who claims he engaged in a lengthy affair with Becki while Jerry sometimes watched. The couple has acknowledged Becki’s affair with Granda, which began when he was 20 years old, but denied that Jerry ever participated.

The investigation is now nearing its eighth month, and investigators have made few updates on their progress. Two people who submitted information via the online portal and requested interviews with Baker Tilly told POLITICO they were never contacted.

Liberty’s board, which hired the investigators, has no obligation to publicly disclose the results of the investigation.

“I don’t know anybody who’s optimistic that the investigation is going to be properly received or processed,” said a former senior Liberty administrator. “There are people who think the investigation itself might legitimately go deep and wide — but then it’s delivered to the same board and executive committee that presided over all of this behavior.”

Liberty has made one significant change that helped appease critics who said the school had become overly political: The Falkirk Center, a controversial on-campus conservative think tank founded by Jerry Falwell Jr. and GOP activist Charlie Kirk, has parted ways with Kirk and is changing its name to the Standing for Freedom Center. The change came after criticism and reporting in POLITICO about Falkirk’s use of university funds to promote former President Donald Trump and his associates.

Falkirk was one part of Falwell’s plans to grow Liberty and its influence. While he ran the school, Falwell became a television personality and national name, and Liberty cemented its position as a must-do stopover for Republican politicians eager to speak and launch campaigns in front of a friendly audience.

Liberty is so far staying close to the path that Falwell laid out for it before he departed.

Prevo, who previously headed a large evangelical church in Alaska, was a close ally of Falwell’s, and is part of a faction of Liberty board members who remain relatively sympathetic to the departed president, according to people familiar with the board’s deliberations. He’s also enthusiastic about maintaining Liberty’s outsized role in Republican politics and attended the Rose Garden swearing in of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett just days after assuming his role as acting president.

Though Liberty is still expected to hire a new president, Prevo is settling into the new role. Last week Prevo hired the chair of the Alaska Republican Party, Glenn Clary, who previously worked with Prevo at his Alaska church, to hold a newly created position as vice president at Liberty. And Liberty’s board, of which Prevo is a member, also released a statement encouraging people to refer to Prevo as “president and CEO” of the university, and drop the “acting” title from his name.

Other allies of Falwell at Liberty include Falwell’s sons Trey, who is a vice president, and Wes. A Liberty University spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether the Falwell sons will continue to be employed by Liberty during the upcoming academic year.

And board members have discussed giving Jonathan Falwell, Jerry’s brother, a senior role at Liberty focused on spirituality, according to Jerry Falwell and another person who has spoken to board members. Jonathan Falwell currently leads Thomas Road Baptist Church, the church founded by the elder Jerry Falwell, and has worked as a Liberty administrator in the past.

Bringing Jonathan Falwell back to Liberty would help appease students and alumni who want to see Liberty refocus on its evangelical roots. But to those in the Liberty community who would like to see a significant change in personnel running the school, adding Jonathan — who is both family to Jerry Falwell Jr., and a member of the board that allowed him to run the school as allegations of financial and personal misbehavior swelled — would be yet another misstep.

“Jerry Falwell Jr. was a bully, and I don’t know if Jonathan ever stood up to his brother,” said another former Liberty administrator.

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McConnell vs. Trump: Why the GOP Is Right to Worry

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McConnell vs. Trump: Why the GOP Is Right to Worry

From the history of these spats, it makes sense that Republicans are still kneeling to an out-of-power president.

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Blinken names State Department’s chief diversity and inclusion officer

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Blinken names State Department's chief diversity and inclusion officer

“It’s perpetuated by policies, practices and people to this day,” Blinken said.

Abercrombie-Winstanley was the former ambassador to Malta during President Barack Obama’s second term, served as a senior career diplomat for more than three decades, and was the first woman to lead a foreign diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia.

“We have the talent to become a model in diversity, equity and inclusion in the workforce,” she said after being introduced by Blinken. “We will ensure the Department of State is the organization that deserves the devotion, sacrifice and the dedication that so many of us have freely given.”

The department has long struggled to reflect the diversity of the United States, and the problem has gotten more pronounced in recent years by several measures. For instance, Black employees make up a smaller share of its workforce than in 2002, according to 2020 Government Accountability Office data.

State has also faced internal pressure, particularly among younger staff, to meaningfully address the issue.

Abercrombie-Winstanley has previously spoken about her experience working in the department amid colleagues who were overwhelmingly white and male.

“In many ways, it was very lonely. It was very lonely,” she said during a 2019 POLITICO podcast. “Walking down those long halls of the Department of State, you didn’t see a lot of people who looked like you. You certainly had to deal with impostor syndrome.”

Diplomats of color have also raised concern to POLITICO and others about the unwritten rules they feel the need to abide by in order to advance their careers in the State Department.

Abercrombie-Winstanley will report directly to the secretary of State, Blinken said.

President Joe Biden has promised diversity will be a key facet of his administration, though outside groups have at times had to lobby for representation in the cabinet and for other high-ranking positions throughout the federal government.

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‘Felt like a setup’: WhatsApp chat shows Gaetz ally scrambling to contain fallout

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‘Felt like a setup’: WhatsApp chat shows Gaetz ally scrambling to contain fallout

Greenberg also said he was paying the legal fees for the woman, who is now 21 years old.

The WhatsApp messages shed light on key aspects of the scandal consuming the Florida Republican congressman and close ally of President Donald Trump — and on the state of mind of the man Gaetz once called his “wingman” as he sought to manage the fallout.

Greenberg went so far as to push Gaetz to use his influence with Trump for a pardon, according to two sources familiar with the discussions, including one who heard Greenberg say it repeatedly.

Asked about the request from Greenberg, Gaetz previously declined to confirm or deny that it occurred. But the congressman said he did not ask Trump to pardon Greenberg. Gaetz couldn’t be reached this weekend to discuss the WhatsApp messages that are the subject of this story.

Gaetz’s allies now fear that Greenberg is preparing to strike a deal with prosecutors to deliver Gaetz, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing. The congressman has not been charged and so far no evidence has surfaced against him beyond anonymous allegations he had sex with a minor or paid for prostitutes. But the scandal has seriously hobbled Gaetz, who built a national reputation as one of the staunchest defenders of Trump and has relentlessly attacked the very Department of Justice that’s now investigating him.

Greenberg faces decades of prison time from a total of 33 different charges, including identity theft, a host of financial crimes and stalking a political opponent he falsely smeared as a pedophile. But the alleged sex-trafficking of the former 17-year-old is the most serious charge and carries a 10-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence.

In the Aug. 14 WhatsApp chat with a politically influential Republican mutual friend of Gaetz and Greenberg, Greenberg initially referred to the young woman as “Vintage 99” — a fine-wine reference to her birth year that she used as her online name on SeekingArrangement, a dating website that connects women with so-called sugar daddies.

“I’m having to pay for vintage 99 to retain [a] lawyer,” Greenberg wrote in the WhatsApp chat to the friend, who discussed the messages with POLITICO on condition of anonymity. “They [federal agents] contacted her and are wanting her to talk. She doesn’t want to talk to them.”

Nor does she want to talk to the press. She blocked a POLITICO reporter on social media and her iPhone after she was called and texted to discuss the case Monday. Her attorney couldn’t be reached. POLITICO is withholding her name because she is the alleged victim of a sex crime.

Greenberg’s defense attorney, Fritz Scheller, said his client is not paying anyone else’s legal bills that he’s aware of, and noted he couldn’t speak to Greenberg’s arrangements before Scheller began to represent the defendant in December.

Scheller suggested his client might cut a deal.

“I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Scheller said after a hearing last Thursday.

It’s not illegal for a suspect to pay the legal bills of a potential witness against him, but attorneys say the arrangement could raise questions about the case against him.

“Imagine if this was a drug case and the drug lord was paying the lawyer of a prosecution witness. What would people say?” said an attorney representing an individual who spoke to prosecutors in the case, and who was not authorized to speak on the record.

“Any time you get something of value, it’s a potential problem and you’re subject to impeachment. It can make a witness less credible,” the attorney said. “At the same time, to make this case [against Gaetz] work, the evidence just needs to be piled on … They’re interviewing everyone.”

In the WhatsApp chat obtained by POLITICO, Greenberg told the friend that his attorney at the time informed him that “everyone is going to need a lawyer.” But the friend then called Greenberg’s attorney — and determined that Greenberg wasn’t telling him the truth.

“I have nothing to do with any of this and think it is incredibly uncool you are trying to lawyer me up to be a part of it, Joel,” he wrote back via WhatsApp. “Not. F—ing. Cool.”

The friend told POLITICO that Greenberg’s message “felt like a setup.”

“It’s the same playbook he used against the teacher he falsely smeared as a pedophile,” the friend said, referring to a separate charge against Greenberg. “And he’ll do the same thing to Gaetz if he can get less prison time.”

Greenberg and Gaetz shared girlfriends, according to interviews with friends and associates who know the two men, and Greenberg introduced him to young women he met on SeekingArrangement. One friend who spent time in the company of both men said he was of the impression that the two engaged with women in more of a “sugar daddy relationship” where money changed hands, though it wasn’t explicitly prostitution.

“I know Joel and Matt paid some of their bills, rent, tuition, things like that,” the friend said. “This is a thing that happens when you’re successful and you have these relationships: ‘Are we not supposed to help these women who mean something to us and that we care about?’ Is that prostitution? Maybe if you’re a Puritan.”

Since many of the transactions in question took place on Venmo, Greenberg speculated in his WhatsApp messages that those mobile payment records were the likely evidentiary link to the woman who was allegedly sex-trafficked as a minor.

“I’m trying to let everyone know who came into contact with any of these girls that the feds are going through my Venmo history and don’t want anyone to be caught off guard,” Greenberg wrote to his friend, who promptly replied that he wasn’t on Venmo, had no such history with any of these women and begged him to “absolutely positively leave my name the f— out of any of this. I’m serious about this Joel.”

“Understood,” Greenberg replied. “My only concern is I don’t know what could possibly come out of their mouths, and if any of them mentioned places where we met etc. I would think you would want to at least have a heads up if some chick says she partied at your house or something. That’s all. I’m trying to cover every possible angle I can think of. I wouldn’t want anyone to be blindsided.”

The friend insisted that he had nothing to do with what Greenberg was describing and was not involved in his schemes.

“I know you aren’t. I didn’t mean to alarm you. You’ve done nothing wrong,” Greenberg replied.

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