By Aram Roston and Joshua Schneyer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In emails to his colleagues over the years, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr has denigrated students and staff at the Christian university he runs, referring to one student as “emotionally imbalanced and physically retarded” and calling the school’s police chief a “half-wit.”
The barbed comments, contained in email exchanges reviewed by Reuters, emerge as the evangelical political leader is seeking to stem a rash of news reports about his stewardship of the Virginia-based university.
Falwell said this week he has asked U.S. federal authorities to investigate whether former board members and employees at the nonprofit university may have broken the law and divulged internal school documents to journalists. The request came after recent reports by Reuters and Politico describing how Falwell has managed Liberty.
Falwell told the Associated Press on Tuesday that he had contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and that the email disclosures constituted an “attempted coup” aimed at securing his ouster from Liberty, where he has served as president since 2008. The FBI declined to comment.
As he complains of being targeted by critics, Reuters has found that Falwell himself was disparaging Liberty students, staff and parents for years in emails to Liberty administrators.
The several dozen emails reviewed by Reuters span nearly a decade-long period starting in 2008. In the emails, Falwell insults some Liberty students, calling them “social misfits.” In others, he blasts faculty members and senior Liberty staff:
-Ronald Sones, then the dean of the engineering school, was “a bag of hot air” who “couldn’t spell the word ‘profit,’” Falwell wrote in 2011. Sones is no longer the dean and could not be reached for comment.
-Richard Hinkley, the campus police chief, was “a half-wit and easy to manipulate” and shouldn’t be allowed to speak publicly. Hinkley could not be reached for comment.
-Of Kevin Keys, then Liberty’s associate athletics director, Falwell wrote in 2012: “Only get Kevin involved in something if you want it not to work.” Contacted by Reuters, Keys said: “I don’t know anything about that and I would prefer not to comment.”
Falwell was asked to comment on excerpts and summaries of the emails cited in this article. David Corry, Liberty’s general counsel, said Liberty wouldn’t respond “without knowing the details or seeing email chains in their entirety.”
STEWARDSHIP UNDER SCRUTINY
Falwell, a prominent supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, has been dogged by recent stories about his private dealings and his stewardship of Liberty, which was founded by his father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Among the stories: his ties to Trump’s jailed lawyer Michael Cohen; his business venture with a former Miami hotel pool attendant; and his role in steering a $1.2 million piece of university property to his personal fitness trainer.
On August 27, Reuters reported how Falwell had helped his young personal trainer, Benjamin Crosswhite. In one email, Falwell wrote, “let’s cut him a sweet deal,” and said -- referring to his wife Rebecca -- “Becki and I wouldn’t mind working out over there with Ben as a trainer because it is more private.”
Records reviewed by Reuters showed how Falwell approved a 2016 deal to sell Crosswhite a sprawling 18-acre fitness facility the university owned. The deal was financed by Liberty, and Crosswhite put no money down. Crosswhite declined to comment at the time, and the university spokesperson said that it was a good deal for Liberty.
On September 9, Politico published emails involving Falwell, in a story that alleged he had propagated a “culture of fear” at Liberty and had other inside dealings with family and friends.
For this story, Reuters has reviewed dozens of additional Falwell email exchanges with other Liberty executives or business partners he considered close confidants. All were sent from his personal account, an Earthlink email domain.
The selection of emails provides a glimpse of the management style Falwell employs to run the nonprofit Christian university, which reports $2.8 billion in assets. Several of the emails take a derogatory tone toward Liberty parents, students, and other university officials.
In one 2012 email, Falwell dismisses Liberty parents who begged the school not to move their kids from on-campus dorms to off-campus housing in the middle of their freshman year when Liberty sought to raze some dorms to build new ones.
In response to one mother’s letter expressing concern for how the move could affect her daughter, emails show, a top Liberty administrator sent a reassuring letter. Falwell struck a less sympathetic tone. “Tell them, if they keep complaining, we’ll tear them down over Thanksgiving break!” Falwell wrote to Liberty officials.
Among other emails he sent to colleagues, Falwell referred in 2015 to students who tried to avoid Liberty parking fees by using a private lot off campus: “These students need to learn to play by the rules or they can go to another college. I’m tired of this crap. Thanks! Jerry.”
Of students who chose to work out in a Liberty-owned off-campus gym: “They seem to be social misfits,” he wrote in 2013. The email shows Falwell wanted to bar students from working out at that gym, where he and other top Liberty executives wanted to train in private.
Of another student, Falwell wrote in 2010: He “is emotionally imbalanced and physically retarded.” Reuters wasn't able to locate the former student for comment.
(Reporting By Aram Roston in Washington and Joshua Schneyer in New York. Edited by Blake Morrison.)