U.S. evangelical leader Falwell to leave university after personal scandal

By Jan Wolfe, Aram Roston and Katanga Johnson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Jerry Falwell Jr, a towering force in the U.S. evangelical Christian movement whose endorsement played a key role in President Donald Trump's 2016 victory, has resigned as president of Liberty University, the school said on Tuesday.

Falwell's dramatic departure as head of one of the world's largest Christian universities came a day after Reuters reported that a business partner of the Falwell family had come forward with a stunning allegation: that he had been in a years-long sexual relationship involving Falwell's wife and the evangelical leader.

To read the Reuters report about the affair, click https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-falwell-relationship

Falwell, who for over a decade served as president of the university founded by his father, did not respond to a request for comment.

Tuesday's announcement from the university put an end to a day of fevered back-and-forth over Falwell's fate. Falwell, 58, had initially agreed to resign shortly after the Reuters report appeared, but then changed his mind following media reports about his decision, according to the university.

Falwell's departure represents a remarkable fall from grace for a man who has been a potent force in American conservative politics.

His endorsement in 2016 helped Trump, a thrice-married New York reality TV star, win evangelical voters in a crowded Republican field that included more established conservatives such as Senator Ted Cruz.

The revelations about Falwell may have little effect on Trump's chances in 2020, however. In the years since winning Falwell's backing, Trump built up his own diehard base of support within the evangelical movement.

A June survey by the Pew Research Center showed that a strong majority of white evangelicals - some 72% of them -approved of Trump's handling of the job, down modestly from 78% in April.

The Reuters report on Monday was the latest in a string of personal embarrassments for Falwell.

The university chief had taken an indefinite leave of absence from Liberty earlier in the month. That step, announced in a terse statement from the school’s board of trustees, came days after Falwell posted, then deleted, an Instagram photo of himself with his pants unzipped, standing with his arm around a young woman whose pants were also partly undone. Falwell later told a local radio station that the picture was meant as a good-natured joke.

On Monday, Reuters reported the allegations of Giancarlo Granda. Granda told Reuters he was 20 when he met Jerry and Becki Falwell while working as a pool attendant at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel in March 2012. Starting that month and continuing into 2018, Granda told Reuters that the relationship involved him having sex with Becki Falwell while Jerry Falwell looked on.

Granda shared with Reuters texts and other material that he said supported his account of a sexual relationship with the couple.

On Sunday night, as Reuters was preparing to publish the article, Jerry Falwell issued a statement in which he said Becki Falwell had had an affair with Granda. Becki Falwell did not respond to questions from Reuters.

Falwell's statement did not mention Granda's allegation of a love triangle and he did not address questions from Reuters about the matter.

The statement also said Granda had been trying to extort money from the couple over the matter.

Granda denies any such intent, saying he was seeking to negotiate a buyout from a business arrangement he says he had with the couple.

Falwell's departure leaves a big gap at Liberty, based in Lynchburg, Virginia. The school has been dominated for decades by Falwell Jr and, before him, by his late father, who in an earlier era was a major force in Republican Party politics.

Liberty said Falwell Jr would be paid severance at a level dictated by his employment agreement - and that the school would not be adjusting that previously agreed sum. Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb did not respond to a question about how much money Falwell would receive in severance pay.

Falwell's son, Jerry Falwell III, known as "Trey," has worked as a vice president at the school. Lamb did not respond to a request for comment on whether Trey Falwell remains employed at the school.

Save71, a group of Liberty alumni, students, and faculty that have called for new leadership, welcomed Falwell's departure.

The group in a statement said Liberty's board has "abdicated their moral and fiduciary duties for years" and "permitted Falwell and his family to run the school like a personal business at the expense of its faculty and its students."

(Reporting by Katanga Johnson, Jan Wolfe and Aram Roston; Editing by Scott Malone, Alistair Bell and Rosalba O'Brien)