‘Animal House’-type allegations swirl around Liberty University in Lynchburg

The Roanoke Times News/October 5, 2023

By Dan Casey

Recall Faber College?

Many of us of a certain age briefly visited that fictional institution in the late 1970s, when we bought tickets to see the movie, “Animal House.” Remember John Belushi as Bluto, the alcohol-drenched toga parties, the splattering food fights and fumbling sexual hijinks? It was the funniest movie of 1978.

On the surface, Liberty University bears little resemblance to Faber College. For one thing, since 1971, Liberty’s stated mission has been “training champions for Christ.” But some recent court papers in a federal lawsuit paint a different picture of the Lynchburg institution.

Jerry Falwell Jr., who was forced out as Liberty University president in 2020 after publicity over a sex scandal, is now suing the Lynchburg institution, which is also suing him. In a recent court filing he alleges sexual improprieties, alcoholism and self-dealing among current and former Liberty officials.

The filing, by deposed Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr., almost makes it sound as if today’s Liberty is being run by Faber grads. The allegations he’s making against current and former Liberty officials include sexual harassment, extramarital affairs, alcoholism and self-dealing.

A Liberty spokesman last week called the accusations “improper and unsupported allegations designed to diminish former colleagues, family, and friends and to discredit the university where he formerly served.” The statement also characterized Falwell’s allegations as “personal attacks.”

Falwell Jr. is the son of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Liberty’s founder. Under his father, the UVa Law School grad served as Liberty’s legal counsel. After the elder Falwell’s death in 2007, junior succeeded his dad.

At that time, Liberty was millions in debt. But under Falwell Jr. the university’s dismal finances made a dramatic turnaround. Liberty expanded into online higher education, and — thanks largely to federal student loan and grant programs — has reaped billions from it. By 2020, its endowment totaled between $1 billion and $2 billion.

The university forced out Falwell Jr. that year, after lurid revelations that his wife, Becki, had had a long-term affair with a male pool attendant the couple met in Miami Beach. The Falwells also shared a business with the young man — ownership of a gay-friendly hostel in South Beach.

If you recall, that was a god-awful mess of negative publicity for Liberty. At one point, ex-Donald Trump fixer Michael Cohen got involved in trying to bury the scandal. Also swirling around it were allegations Falwell Jr. shared photos of Becki in lingerie with associates, and gossip that involved a handsome young personal trainer at Liberty.

For a while, Cohen’s scandal-hushing efforts succeeded. And then they didn’t, and you-know-what hit the fan.

Now, Falwell and Liberty are embroiled in three separate lawsuits. In state court, Liberty is suing Falwell for $10 million, arguing the former university president failed to disclose negative personal information (about Becki Falwell’s affair) while negotiating an employment contract with Liberty.

That case was filed in Lynchburg Circuit Court in 2021. Though listed as “active” in online court records, it appears to have made little headway. The last motion filed occurred in February 2022.

In federal court, Falwell Jr. sued Liberty in March for millions in retirement pay he says Liberty agreed to, but later reneged on. And in July, Falwell Jr. sued Liberty a second time for misappropriating his father’s image and profiting off it.

The recent allegations against Liberty officials arose in that case, in a Sept. 13 amended complaint filed by Falwell Jr.

One of the defendants is his brother, the Rev. Jonathan Falwell. He pastors Thomas Road Baptist Church and serves as university pastor, too. At least until recently, they both served as co-trustees of the Dr. Jerry Falwell Trust, which Falwell Jr. claims owns the rights to his father’s image.

On Sept. 27, Liberty filed a motion in federal court to dismiss the case. Among other arguments, it claims Jerry Falwell Jr. was removed as a co-trustee of his father’s trust Sept. 6, a week before Falwell Jr. filed the amended complaint.

In that, Falwell Jr. argues that Liberty dismissed him not because he had an extramarital affair, but because his wife did. The filing claims the university retained other leaders after learning of their affairs — and it cited several.

According to the amended complaint, one of them was a now-deceased former dean of Liberty’s School of Divinity.

“And a current member of the Executive Committee has admitted to previously having more than one affair,” the complaint claims. “All of these incidents involved situations in which officials themselves were engaged in affairs or other misconduct, in contrast to Mr. Falwell, who had not had engaged in similar misconduct or had any affair.”

In a separate instance the amended complaint cites, Liberty paid a settlement to a former university employee who alleged sex harassment by a former high-ranking Liberty University official.

“Liberty retained him in that position notwithstanding that a payment had to be made to that employee as a result,” the amended complaint states.

It also alleges the university has paid more than $1 million in grant-type payments to pet nonprofit projects of Liberty University board members. Also, the university president who succeeded Falwell, Jerry Prevo, wasted Liberty’s money by flying back and forth to his home in Alaska on the university’s jet at a cost of at least $35,000 per trip, the amended complaint states.

The lawsuit suggests that Prevo, a close associate of evangelist Franklin Graham, was working with Graham to take over Liberty by getting rid of Falwell Jr.

The complaint also alleged that university officials sought to remove Falwell Jr. even before Becki’s affair was revealed, using as a pretext Falwell’s “excess drinking” and health issues that resulted.

“At least two members of [Liberty’s] Executive Committee drink, one of whom has been to rehab three times,” the amended complaint says.

Falwell Jr.’s health issues turned out unrelated to drinking — and the complaint alleges Liberty officials knew that. Rather, Falwell Jr. was diagnosed with a potentially deadly genetic condition that filled his lungs with blood clots. He was hospitalized for that and has since recovered.

Falwell Jr. and I talked briefly about the lawsuit last week, and that was the only part he was willing to elaborate on. He now injects medicine daily to prevent clotting, Falwell said, and added that he’s back in the gym and feeling a lot better than he did before treatment. His lawyers have cautioned him about commenting further on the case, he said.

The university’s statement said: “These personal attacks have no place in a legal dispute over the use of a person’s name, image, and likeness. Liberty will file the appropriate response to these claims in due time and defend its legal right to continue the use of Dr. Jerry Falwell’s name.

The statement ended: “Furthermore, we stand by our initial statement that Liberty University and its Board of Trustees have only sought to honor the visionary leadership of Dr. Jerry Falwell and the mission of training Champions for Christ.”

If you recall how “Animal House” ended, it was suddenly, and during Faber College’s homecoming parade.

The bad-boy fraternity members banned and expelled by Faber administrators snuck a fearsomely armored “Deathmobile” into the homecoming parade, after the university’s dean reported the frat brothers to the local draft board.

The Deathmobile promptly crashed into the review stand where parade-watching administrators were perched.

Falwell Jr. is definitely aiming at the administration of Liberty — and it is aiming at him. This clash is no less public than the one in “Animal House.”

But it’s happening in slow motion, rather than as a sudden conflagration. So far, the only evident winners are Virginia lawyers and the billable hours they’re racking up in the legal mess.

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