MIAMI -- 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; 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 mantel 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.
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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 Miami 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.