Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. participates in a town hall meeting on the opioid crisis as part of first lady Melania the first lady’s “Be Best” initiative at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino on March 5, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The town hall is the final stop of the first lady’s three-state tour promoting her platform that highlights children’s well-being, cyberbullying and opioid abuse.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Liberty University students are demanding an “open and clean investigation” into school president Jerry Falwell Jr. after explosive news reports detailing alleged self-dealing and the denigration of students and officials during his tenure at the Christian university.
“We should hold the university president at the same standard that me and my friends at Liberty are held to,” Ian Parish, a senior at Liberty University, told CNBC in an interview.
Parish was one of the leaders of a group of more than 60 Liberty University students who protested on campus last Friday, voicing their displeasure with Falwell, son of the late school founder and televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. and a prominent backer of President Donald Trump.
The demonstration was sparked by a Reuters news agency article the day before that reported Falwell had referred to a student in an email as “emotionally imbalanced and physically retarded.”
Parish noted that student protests at Liberty are rare, at best.
“It used to be that if you talked about articles critical of Jerry, you’d be the communist or liberal one in the group,” Parish said.
But Parish said that even students who are less politically engaged are “outraged and incensed” with Falwell for a lack of transparency in his administration and for having drawn negative attention to Liberty.
Liberty junior Elizabeth Brooks, another leader of the protest, said that its goal is to spur the university’s board of directors into launching an investigation into Falwell.
“We didn’t do this because we hate President Falwell,” Brooks said. “Our real mission and goal is to see if the allegations are true.”
“We are in search of the truth, in search of transparency and accountability.”
Brooks added: “If you don’t put pressure on President Falwell or the administration, things will stay the way they are, and that’s what we are afraid of.”
Falwell at first responded to the protests positively, with a tweet on Friday saying he was “so impressed with how @LibertyU students conducted themselves today at the protest!”
Liberty officials this week pointed to that tweet when CNBC requested comment about the students’ protests.
But a day after posting that tweet, Falwell tweeted an image someone else had posted on Instagram that made fun of the protesters and suggested that “no one cares” about the demonstration.
A half-hour after that tweet, Falwell said he was not trying to disparage the students but that he had found the image “funny.”
But Parish said, “It sort of shows how serious Jerry is taking these students and how serious he is taking the role that he has been given.”
Falwell and Liberty came under scrutiny last week after a Politico article detailed allegations of self-dealing between Falwell and his family and friends.
The article also reported alleged comments and emails made by Falwell denigrating university students and officials — and sexually related comments he allegedly made about his own wife.
Additionally, the article revealed how university officials bristled at Falwell’s early and ardent support for Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.
When Trump delivered a commencement speech in 2017, the university printed and sold Trump-branded merchandise at the event. Some tax experts said that could be a violation of laws governing nonprofit organizations, such as Liberty.
Since endorsing Trump, Falwell has made headlines for his and his wife’s business and personal relationship with Miami pool attendant Giancarlo Granda. The couple became close with Granda, flying him in their private jet, and even financing and launching a hostel in Miami Beach with him that was described as “a cesspool of vice.”
Reports also surfaced of an alleged hush-money arrangement facilitated by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and “fixer,” to stop some revealing photos of Falwell’s wife, Becki, from going public. The alleged arrangement was reportedly made shortly before Falwell’s endorsement of Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Cohen is now serving three years in federal prison for violating campaign finance laws and tax evasion.
An attorney for Falwell and his wife called the claims “not accurate.”
“While the Falwells have a long-standing friendship with Michael Cohen, they never engaged or paid Cohen to represent them in any legal or other professional capacity, and Cohen did not ever resolve any legal matter on their behalf,” the statement said, according to The Washington Post.
The attorney told the Post in a text message, “There are no compromising or embarrassing photos of Falwell, period!”
Falwell has claimed that the recent report in Politico is part of a “criminal conspiracy” by former board members to oust him from his position.
He also said he asked the FBI to look into university documents that were leaked to reporters.
Off campus, some religious groups are speaking out against Falwell.
Faithful America, a Christian nonprofit organization dedicated to social justice and liberal activism, circulated a petition calling for an official investigation of Falwell.
“Christians are appalled by recent reports about the mismanagement of Liberty University. We call on Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and IRS Commissioner Charles P. Rettig to hold the school accountable,” reads the petition, which has nearly 11,000 signatures.
“Open criminal investigations into accusations of self-dealing and other misconduct by Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell, Jr., at once!” the petition says.
Herring’s office declined to comment on whether Falwell or Liberty are being investigated by the office.
“We generally do not comment on pending investigations, even to confirm whether or not one is ongoing,” a spokesman for Herring said.
Liberty officials said neither the university nor Falwell is a subject of any investigation from any government authority.