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.
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.”
Click here to read more.
SOURCE: Miami Herald, Douglas Hanks and Julie K. Brown