The picture is slowly becoming more clear.
This week, layers of the ongoing saga surrounding a prominent evangelical couple, a “pool boy,” racy photos, President Trump’s ex-lawyer and a climactic 2016 endorsement were peeled back.
The Miami Herald and The New York Times both published substantial reports outlining the details of a South Beach, Florida hostel ownership dispute that culminated in a lawsuit against Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife. The details of the suit give us a clearer picture of what exactly went down when Michael Cohen, as he claims, was tasked with destroying some allegedly “terrible,” “personal” photos for the Falwells.
There’s a lot going on here. Here are five points to catch you up on how the story’s unfolding:
The Alleged Pictures Are Of Becki Tilley, Falwell’s Wife
When Cohen first divulged his role in the ordeal to comedian Tom Arnold, in a call Cohen didn’t know was being recorded, he was vague in his descriptions of the photos.
Cohen characterized them as “terrible” and “personal” — the kind typically kept between “husband and wife,” according to a Reuters report on May 7. The new Times piece this week revealed Cohen joked “the evangelicals are kinkier than Tom Arnold” and explained his motivation was to protect Becki Tilley, Falwell’s wife.
“Even though she has a very nice figure, nobody wants their private photos published,” Cohen said, suggesting that at least one of the photos in question was a private image of Tilley. He also said that he still had one of the photos of Tilley in his possession (perhaps not in his possession currently, as he is in prison for hush money payments he made to a porn star for President Trump and lying to Congress).
The Miami Herald reported Wednesday that it reviewed three of the photos: “They are images not of Falwell, but of his wife in various stages of undress,” in the Herald’s words. The newspaper said it was not able to independently authenticate the images and it was unclear when they were taken — but it appears that two images were captured at the family’s farm in Virginia and another a Cheeca Lodge, a vacation spot in Islamorada, Florida.
The revelation lines up with Falwell’s initial denial: “This report is not accurate,” Falwell told a Fox Radio station after the Reuters report dropped in May. “There are no compromising or embarrassing photos of me.”
A Promising ‘Pool Boy’
While the Falwells were on vacation in 2012 at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach — known for its topless sunbathing and eccentric nightclubs — they struck up conversation with a pool attendant named Giancarlo Granda. The couple was reportedly impressed with Granda’s ambition to get into Florida real estate, a friend told the Times. Soon Granda was embarking on hiking and skiing trips with the couple and flying on their private jet. At some point after their initial meeting, Granda traveled to the Cheeca Lodge with the Falwells, according to the Miami Herald, the same resort where Tilley is reportedly seen in at least one of the photographs.
The relationship led to a business venture when the couple offered to help Granda cut his teeth in Florida real estate. Granda reportedly consulted with a friend and his friend’s father about what to make of the Falwells’ offer. The pair, Jesus Fernandez Jr. and Jesus Fernandez Sr., pointed Granda to a youth hostel in South Beach, Florida. The Fernandezes, Granda and the Falwells reportedly all met around June 2012 to discuss the purchase, according to the Herald. The meeting took place at the Loews Miami Beach.
The Falwells ultimately agreed to finance the purchase of the hostel, which also included a restaurant and a liquor store. As negotiations progressed, the couple invited Granda to visit Liberty University to meet then-citizen Trump when he delivered a speech at the school in 2012. The Times obtained a photo of Granda shaking Trump’s hand while the couple looms in the background.
The hostel was purchased in February 2013 by the Falwells for $4.7 million. Granda, Tilley and the couple’s eldest son, who goes by Trey, each had a stake in the property. The Falwells’ son and Granda worked as co-managers of the property. The two worked together to upgrade the facility and get it up to the code.
The business relationship between the Falwells, Granda and the Fernandezes ultimately grew tense. The Fernandezes filed a legal complaint against the Falwells in June 2015, and a lawsuit a couple of years later. The Fernandezes allege in the suit, described in detail by the Times and the Herald, that during negotiations with the Falwells, ownership shares were promised to them. The Falwells deny the claims.
According to the Times, the ongoing court battle over the Fernandezes’ ownership stake in the hostel devolved into a back-and-forth over the alleged possession of the compromising photos — a battle that Cohen claims he helped resolve. According to people involved in the case who spoke to the Times, either Granda or the Fernandezes were in possession of “personal” photos that were being used as a means of leverage against the Falwells.
Both the Fernandezes claimed they had to change their names to Gordon Bello and Jett Bello, respectively, over the litigation because they received threats. The name change reportedly took place after Cohen got involved.
Cohen Tries To Save The Day
Most of what we know about Cohen’s involvement as fixer for the Falwells comes directly from Cohen’s mouth.
Earlier this year, comedian Tom Arnold started tweeting his suspicions about the Falwells and Granda, suggesting that the couple had a sexual relationship with the young entrepreneur. There’s no evidence of that. But that’s when Cohen, just months away from heading to prison, called Arnold to correct the record.
“There’s a bunch of photographs, personal photographs, that somehow the guy ended up getting — whether it was off of Jerry’s phone or somehow maybe it got AirDropped or whatever the hell the whole thing was,” Cohen told Arnold, according to the Times. Cohen never revealed the name of “the guy” he was referring to, but he does make reference to a “pool boy” in the call.
“I was going to pay him, and I was going to get the negatives and do an agreement where they turn over all the technology that has the photographs or anything like that, any copies,” he reportedly said, adding that the payment never actually happened and “the guy” just ended up deleting the pictures himself.
As the Times notes, it’s still unclear how many photos are or were in existence.
And the Falwells have denied having any relationship with Cohen outside of a friendship. In the conversation with Arnold, Cohen alleges he used to be friends with the Falwells but lamented they don’t talk to him anymore.
“We never engaged or paid Cohen to represent us in any legal or other professional capacity,” Falwell said in that same Fox radio interview.
As the Wall Street Journal noted in January, Cohen in 2015 hired an IT firm, whose owner is the chief information office of Liberty University, to rig online polls in Trump’s favor and build him a “@WomenForCohen” Twitter account.
Timing Of That Trump Endorsement
While there is still no evidence that any deal was arranged between Cohen and Falwell over the Trump fixer’s handling of the photo crisis, the timing of the ordeal and Falwell’s surprising endorsement of Trump for president is notable.
Cohen was reportedly busy handling the photo ordeal in the months leading up to Falwell’s endorsement, and Cohen has previously said he was the architect behind the endorsement. The endorsement from one of the most prominent evangelicals in the country was momentous for Trump’s campaign and widely credited as the catalyst that shifted the white evangelical vote away from candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who announced his presidential campaign at Liberty University in 2015, and toward Trump.
The timing becomes especially puzzling given assertions from Cruz’s former spokesman, who told the Herald that Falwell assured him prior to his Trump announcement that he wouldn’t back a primary candidate, in part because the Liberty University school board wouldn’t allow him to. But Falwell announced his support for Trump in January 2016, just one week before the Iowa caucuses.
“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,’’ Rick Tyler, the ex-Cruz spokesman, told the Herald. “Clearly, something changed that led him to endorse Trump, and I would like to know what that was.”