Liberty University may take a journalist to court for an article detailing various allegations against school president Jerry Falwell Jr.
Breitbart News reported on Tuesday that the University had retained the services of the law firm Kasowitz Benson Torres, LLP, which has notable clients including President Donald Trump.
In an interview with the conservative news publication, Falwell explained that he and Liberty “have a fiduciary duty to defend the school from this attack.”
“We have been patient with the smear campaign being waged against the school, but it is clear now that there is a concerted effort to damage the school’s reputation and mission,” he told Breitbart.
At specific issue was a piece written by Brandon Ambrosino, a freelance writer and Liberty alumni who has been published by The New York Times, The Atlantic, Economist, and others.
In a piece for Politico published in September, Ambrosino reported talking to several current and former Liberty officials who spoke of a “culture of fear and self-dealing” at the school.
“More than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell spoke to me or provided documents for this article … about what they’ve experienced and why they don’t think he’s the right man to lead Liberty University or serve as a figurehead in the Christian conservative movement,” wrote Ambrosino.
“In interviews over the past eight months, they depicted how Falwell and his wife, Becki, consolidated power at Liberty University and how Falwell presides over a culture of self-dealing, directing university resources into projects and real estate deals in which his friends and family have stood to make personal financial gains.”
Ambrosino went on to write that, according to his sources, Falwell hired his son Trey’s company to manage a Liberty-owned shopping center and awarded contracts to businesses owned by friends.
His sources also detailed instances of Falwell’s behavior that they also saw as improper for a conservative Christian leader, including nightclub partying and discussing his sex life with Liberty staff.
Breitbart showcased a letter they obtained written by Kasowitz Benson Torres attorney Michael Bowe that was sent to Ambrosino earlier this month.
“You have and continue to publicly defame LU and Mr. Falwell with a series of claims for which you have no factual basis, that are based on knowingly misrepresented facts, or which you have just made up,” wrote Bowe, as reported by Breitbart.
“It is clear from the evidence we have thus far uncovered that these false and defamatory statements were made with actual malice and an actual intent to harm LU and Mr. Falwell.”
For his part, Falwell explained to Breitbart that they will file a lawsuit only if “we are confident we can succeed,” adding that this was “why we have engaged a law firm to do a thorough investigation of the facts and parties involved before we act.”
In response to the letter and the possible lawsuit, Ambrosino defended his work, simply stating to the News & Advance that “I stand by my reporting.”
Last August, Aram Roston and Joshua Schneyer of Reuters published an article claiming that Falwell had helped his personal trainer obtain former school property through personally approved real estate transactions.
According to Reuters, Falwell began having Benjamin Crosswhite as a personal trainer in 2011. Later, Crosswhite came to own an 18-acre fitness and sports facility that used to be owned by Liberty, thanks to real estate transactions signed by Falwell.
“When Falwell helped Crosswhite, he used the assets of Liberty, the tax-exempt university he has led since 2008,” Reuters reported in August.
“Among the largest Christian universities in the world, Liberty depends on hundreds of millions of dollars its students receive in federally backed student loans and Pell grants.”
For their part, Liberty sent Reuters a statement saying the sale to Crosswhite benefitted the University, as the property was a "drain on university resources." They also said Falwell was a "business mentor" to Crosswhite, but that he did not “abandon his fiduciary duties” to the University.