The sun was setting at the Cheeca Lodge resort in Islamorada when Jerry Falwell Jr. smiled for the camera, a national evangelical leader nearing 50 posing next to a young man he had met poolside in Miami Beach.
The photograph shows Giancarlo Granda, a handsome, 20-something pool attendant whom Jerry and his wife, Rebecca, 52, befriended at the Fontainebleau hotel in 2012, and within months, would set up as part-owner and manager of a $4.7 million South Beach hostel.
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. Yet there they were, not only business partners but mingling socially at Cheeca, an idyllic, exclusive resort in the Keys.
The relationship between the Falwells and Granda forms the backdrop of an improbable Miami story that is causing political ripples beyond South Florida. It involves a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, the “pool boy” as he is described in the lawsuit, the comedian Tom Arnold, Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s now imprisoned political fixer, naked photographs — and a Miami father and son who say they were defrauded in a real estate deal then forced to change their names due to “threats.”
It’s a sideshow to the 2020 political campaign that’s just getting started with the first Democratic debate scheduled next week in Miami.
Falwell, 57, who took over the mantle of Liberty University following the death of his father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., has denied the suggestion that in 2015 he sought help from Cohen, who told Arnold in a surreptitiously taped conversation that he embarked on a mission to recover “personal” photographs involving the Falwells.
On Aug. 7, Liberty announced Falwell was stepping down from his university posts after he briefly shared on Instagram a photo of him on a yacht with unzipped pants and pulled up shirt with a woman who wasn’t his wife — a pose he said was part of a harmless gag.
Cohen has acknowledged performing delicate chores for the future president of the United States, including paying off his alleged paramours with hush money — to prevent the release of embarrassing personal photographs in the past. In his only known interview about the subject, first reported by Reuters and BuzzFeed, Falwell denied the existence of photographs involving himself.
“This report is not accurate,” Falwell told the Todd Starnes radio show. “There are no compromising or embarrassing photos of me.”
Three photographs have been seen by the Herald, however. They are images not of Falwell, but of his wife in various stages of undress. 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. Two of the photographs appear to have been taken at the Falwells’ farm in Virginia, and a third at the Cheeca Lodge.
The timing of Cohen’s alleged photo-recovery mission roughly preceded Falwell’s pivotal evangelical endorsement of Trump in the 2016 Republican primary, which Cohen says he helped engineer. Ted Cruz, who became the last candidate standing in the fight to deprive Trump of the Republican nomination, wanted to land that endorsement for himself. That he didn’t get it remains a sore point with some of his backers and a source of curiosity, including speculation that the “pool boy” saga and the presidential endorsement could be somehow related.
“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,’’ said Rick Tyler, former spokesman for Cruz.
Tyler said that Falwell assured him that he had no intention of endorsing anyone in the primary in part because his board at Liberty University wouldn’t permit it. So Tyler and others on the Cruz campaign were caught off guard when Falwell suddenly endorsed Trump in January 2016 — a week before the crucial Iowa caucuses and at a time when Cruz and Trump were mounting a fight for key endorsements from powerful leaders on the religious right.
“Clearly, something changed that led him to endorse Trump, and I would like to know what that was,’’ said Tyler, who is now an MSNBC commentator.
The Falwells, through their lawyer, declined to speak with the Miami Herald.
Granda referred questions about the hostel to his lawyer, Aaron Resnick, who did not respond to requests for comment. Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, also declined to speak to the Herald.
Cohen, who is in prison and unavailable, laments in the Arnold phone conversation that the Falwells, longtime friends, no longer talk to him.
Built in 1939 on what’s now a four-lane thoroughfare, the Alton Hostel offers rooms for as little as $17 a night in South Beach’s summer off-season. The dorm-style facility has about 120 beds, and offers free breakfast, free Wi-Fi, a bar, Jacuzzi and a common kitchen. There are no ocean views; rooms overlook a common area with games and a pool table.
The hostel’s website offers a full kitchen for guests to cook their meals, bike rentals, and a barbecue every Saturday. Guests can bring their own alcohol to the bar, and it’s available at the first-floor liquor store, one of two tenants the Falwell family inherited with the 2013 purchase. On Trip Advisor, the hostel bills itself as “Party Tropical,’’ a place where guests can pre-party before clubbing in South Beach. The resort is LGBT-friendly, and many of its visitors come from abroad.
“If you came to Miami Beach to party and have a wonderful time, let the Miami hostel take care of it,’’ its write-up says on the travel website.
Since the $4.7 million purchase, the Falwells have sought to upgrade the property. Granda, afforded a 24.9 percent stake in the hostel, has worked there, earning $350 a week in compensation while overseeing renovations, according to a filing with the city of Miami Beach.
“My family purchased the property at 810 Alton Road in February of 2013,” Falwell wrote the city’s Building department in February 2014, requesting a fine waiver over some code violations. “We believe that the circumstances that created these violations merit consideration for mitigation.”
All in for Trump
While his late father was a leading televangelist who founded the politically powerful Moral Majority and once famously blamed 9/11 in part on the “gays and lesbians ... who have tried to secularize America,” Falwell Jr. is a former real estate lawyer and developer with no preaching background. He presided over a financial rebound of the school and a campus expansion that included the addition of an artificial snowboarding mountain.
Falwell became a prominent Trump supporter during the 2016 presidential campaign, one of the first leaders of the evangelical movement to endorse Trump.
That connection wound up drawing extra attention when Cohen — in the March phone talk with Arnold secretly taped — recounted his alleged efforts to recover the photographs.
It is a cryptic conversation, with Arnold, a Trump antagonist, trying to draw details out of Cohen.
Cohen brushes off Arnold’s attempt to link the photos to Granda, saying the images appear to have been swiped from Jerry Falwell’s phone, and describes some of his other famous Republican clients having had private photos become public after being “hacked.”
“They’re photos ... between husband and wife,” Cohen says in a tape provided to the Herald by Arnold. Cohen says he has one of the pictures, then pauses and states: “It’s terrible.”
“It’s happened to a couple of people I know, who are the wives of celebrities,” he says. “Their phones get hacked. ... My heart went out to Becky.”
Arnold keeps trying to get Cohen to elaborate. “You definitely brought the Falwells ... I mean you did the deal with the pool boy.”
“Tom, you’re wrong about that,” Cohen replied. “That’s not what it was about. That ... I, spoke to, the pool boy or whatever he is — that story is not accurate.”
From Fernandez to Bello
Aside from code violations, the hostel purchase encountered another unforeseen problem: a lawsuit in Miami-Dade circuit court. A lawyer and senior aide to Miami-Dade Commission Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson, Jesus Fernandez Jr., says in the suit he was close friends with Granda and claims he was cut out of the hostel deal. He and his father, a Miami builder, were both plaintiffs against Falwell.
The younger Fernandez, 21 when the deal was developing, describes Granda as his best friend in an initial legal pleading filed in Miami-Dade County Court in June 2015. He stated that Granda was a regular at the South Beach apartment where Fernandez lived with his girlfriend. There, he states, Granda would share details of a newfound friendship with the Falwells from his work at the Fontainebleau — a relationship that “evolved” to include private jet trips with the couple.
The 2015 court pleading includes a demand for a trove of evidence, including video surveillance footage and restaurant bills from the Fontainebleau showing the Falwells and Granda. The Fontainebleau fought the request and that part of the case was eventually dropped once the Fernandezes filed a formal lawsuit in August 2017.
The younger Fernandez — then a desk clerk at a different South Beach hostel managed by his girlfriend — states in the pleading that Granda told him Falwell offered to “help Granda establish a new career and build a business.” Fernandez Jr. suggested Falwell invest in a hostel, since they’re relatively inexpensive to run and can generate significant dollars.
Through his girlfriend, the younger Fernandez further states in an affidavit, he was able to provide Falwell vital inside information on the financial performance of a competitor, guiding him to a deal for a similar property.
“I continued to provide information for the business plan to go forward,” he writes in a May 18 affidavit. “Falwell promised me I would have an equal share with Granda in the venture if it went forward.”
The Fernandezes met Falwell and Granda in the lobby of the Loews Miami Beach for a pitch meeting in 2012. It was that meeting, confirmed by Falwell in an affidavit, that launched the legal feud that would culminate in the lawsuit, one that has helped shape the Falwell/“pool boy” story. The Fernandezes sought potentially millions of dollars in damages.
(It was not Fernandez Sr.’s only litigation. He was accused of fraud during a bankruptcy fight as his former role as a real estate mogul melted down after a divorce and the housing crash in the last decade. In June 2012, at roughly the same time the father and son met Falwell, Fernandez Sr. filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. He reported about $6 million in assets and more than $34 million in debt, most of it loans tied to real estate. About $3 million of the claims came from the Internal Revenue Service.)
A judge eventually dropped the elder Fernandez from the Falwell lawsuit but the son’s claim lives on. Falwell lawyers called the lawsuit “sloppy” in an early 2018 pleading, and wrote it seemed “Plaintiffs are simply seeking a quick payday from a public figure.”
Meanwhile, Fernandez Senior and Junior have changed their names to Jett and Gordon Bello, respectively. The name change involved some sort of unpleasantness stemming from the lawsuit.
“We felt it was very important for us to find a different path,” said the father in a brief interview with the Herald. “There were obviously major concerns. And they were based on threats.”
The younger Bello would not speak to the Miami Herald.
Although the hotel was purchased in the name of Falwell’s wife, the couple’s son, Jerry Falwell III, known as Trey, and Granda, emails, text messages and business agreements filed in the lawsuit show the elder Falwell was at the center of the deal that eventually closed with a $4.7 million sale on Feb. 21, 2013.
Falwell Jr. said in a court affidavit that the former Fontainebleau pool attendant, now 28, was given his share in the business in exchange for serving as local manager.
“I have personal knowledge that he managed difficult efforts to bring the Alton Road property up to the standards of the applicable building, zoning and [other] codes and regulations of the City of Miami Beach,” Falwell Jr. wrote in the 2018 affidavit.
Emails provided by Miami Beach’s building department show both Granda and Trey Falwell engaged in the effort to bring the hostel into compliance with regulations and complete work there.
In an email from March 2017, Granda relayed to city code officer his uphill effort to secure an occupancy certificate. The permit “is still pending because the City of Miami Beach continues to reject the architect’s plans,” he wrote. “We are trying to finalize everything but the CO [certificate of occupancy] is out of our control at the moment.”
Socializing in the Keys
The Falwells occasionally visit the Miami area and the Keys. One stop has been Cheeca, a secluded gated resort tucked deep in a dense canopy of Seagrape and Palm trees off the Overseas Highway. The lodge has a long history, dating back seven decades, during which it has hosted U.S. presidents from Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush, along with celebrities, past and present.
Luxury rooms at the oceanfront hotel can cost upward of $800 a night, which includes recreational amenities such as golf and paddleboard rental, a private adults-only pool, free champagne at check-in and breathtaking ocean views.
Sometime after meeting Granda in 2012, the couple visited Cheeca with Granda. A photograph of that visit, obtained by the Herald, shows Falwell Jr. in a sport shirt and trousers standing on the beach with Granda, wearing black T-shirt and long pants. The resort’s pier frames the background. It was before the “pool boy” publicity became a headache for everyone involved.
A former student at Florida International University, Granda no longer works as a pool attendant and is now pursuing a master’s in real estate at Georgetown University.
The results of his initial foray into that business have not been good. The hostel has been anything but a cash cow, reporting a loss of about $105,000 on nearly $400,000 in sales in 2015, according to Alton Hostel’s tax return from that year.
The losses inched up in 2016 — to $115,000.