New court documents offer a peek into how evangelist Jerry Falwell Jr. wound up in the South Beach hotel business with a former Fontainebleau Hotel pool attendant
The latest twist involves a top aide to the chairwoman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, who is suing Falwell over what he says was a promised share of the hotel business that never materialized. Gordon Bello, legislative director to Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson, said he changed his name from the plaintiff listed in the 2017 suit, Jesus Fernandez Jr.
In an affidavit filed this week, Bello said that the name change was “due to an occurrence directly related to the subject matter of this lawsuit.”
On Wednesday, Bello declined to comment but confirmed he is the Bello who filed the affidavit. He referred questions to his lawyer, Michael Addicott, who was not available for an interview. A lawyer for Falwell, Joshua Spector, also could not be reached for comment.
The affidavit includes emails from Falwell Jr., who is president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia; his son “Trey” Falwell; and others detailing the effort to purchase the Alton Hostel — also known as the Miami Hostel — at 810 Alton Road.
A corporation currently managed by Trey Falwell and the Fontainebleau attendant, Giancarlo Granda, purchased the two-story hostel for $4.6 million in 2013. Falwell Jr.’s ownership became a national story in 2017 when Politico explored the evangelical leader’s involvement with a “South Beach flophouse.” Falwell Jr. and his wife, Rebecca, befriended Granda, and a BuzzFeed story quoted real estate agents saying Falwell Jr. was seeking a business venture to provide an income source for Granda.
Miami-Dade court records show Bello took on his new name in June 2016. There were no explanations in the court filings for the change to Gordon Bello. His father, Jesus Fernandez Sr., won a name change to Jett Bello at the same time. Bello was the maiden name of the elder Fernandez’s mother.
Bello, as Fernandez Jr., and his father, as Jesus Fernandez Sr., filed suit in 2017 in Miami-Dade Circuit Court against Falwell Jr., Granda and others, claiming they were cut out of the Alton Hostel deal.
The affidavit Bello filed Tuesday provides new details to the back story of the South Beach real estate venture, which is still in the Falwell family. Bello, a 2016 graduate of University of Miami’s law school, states he has known Granda since high school, and that his friend “had no prior experience in managing a hostel business or supervising any major renovations. He was a pool boy...”
Granda’s Miami lawyer, Aaron Resnick, said Wednesday he had not seen the affidavit and was not ready to comment.
Bello said Granda asked him to “help him find a business to pitch to Falwell.” That pitch for buying a hostel apparently happened at the Loews hotel in Miami Beach, where Falwell Jr. promised Bello (then Fernandez) would partner with Granda if the hostel idea went forward, according to the affidavit.
“My girlfriend,” Bello wrote, had “previously been the assistant manager at the largest hostel in South Beach where I had managed the front desk there.”
Bello’s affidavit tries to counter an affidavit that Falwell Jr. filed in the case late last year. That affidavit downplays Falwell Jr.’s role in the hostel deal but does confirm meeting with the Fernandezes and real estate agents about the potential purchase. He wrote that he and his wife loaned $1 million to the entity their son and Granda formed to purchase the hostel, and then an additional $800,000 for renovations. He also listed his wife as a partner in the company that owns the hotel.
“At all pertinent times, my role was limited to counseling and advising Alton Hostel in acquisition of the business opportunity and closing of financing,” Falwell Jr. wrote. “I have never charged, invoiced or collected fees from Alton Hostel. ... Alton Hostel has never paid a salary or wages to me.”
Falwell Jr., a lawyer, said he was active in real estate deals and and acted as a developer before taking the top job at Liberty, a Christian university founded by his late father, televangelist Jerry Falwell. In the affidavit, Falwell Jr. denies promising either of the Fernandezes a role in the Alton hostel. He said Granda was granted a share in the hotel in exchange for agreeing to manage it.
Documents Bello filed with his affidavit appear to show Falwell Jr. active with the potential deal. In an Aug. 17, 2012, email to Luigi Gallegos, Falwell’s real estate agent, Falwell Jr. pushed back on paying more than $4 million for the property. “I had a good discussion about why the property simply does not generate enough income to support a purchase price in the range that Joe is asking,” Falwell Jr. wrote, referring to then-owner Joe Comesana. “I also explained that we still were not even convinced that the income would support a $4.5 million purchase price.”
In a Nov. 8, 2012, email, Falwell Jr. tells Gallegos he contacted Comesana directly and sent him a new letter of intent for a sale. “He is reviewing,” Falwell wrote, “but has not yet accepted.” On Jan. 22, 2013, Falwell Jr. wrote Gallegos about “code issues” and a dispute about some personal property in the hostel. “This deal is growing hair,” Falwell wrote. County records show the sale closed about a month later, on Feb. 21, 2013.
Falwell’s role as an early supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign helped drive media interest in the South Beach deal, along with the seemingly central role of a low-level hotel worker in the transaction. Earlier this month, interest revved up again when Reuters reported that former Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen had helped Falwell Jr. deal with “personal” photographs held by someone else. Cohen intervened and the person destroyed them, according to Reuters, which based its reporting on a recorded conversation with Cohen by comedian Tom Arnold. The report said Cohen flew to Florida in 2016 to deal with the photographs.
This week, Jett Bello spoke to the Miami Herald about his early discussions with Falwell Jr., including that 2012 Loews meeting where he found the university president both pious and shrewd.
“’Praise you. May God bless you,’” Bello, a Miami builder, recalled Falwell Jr. saying during the lobby meeting. “He was generally a nice, well-spoken guy who was very astute with his questions.”
While the elder Bello answered questions about Falwell Jr., he would not comment when asked if he had ever met Cohen. “I’m not at liberty to discuss that at this moment,” he said.
Jett Bello also declined to explain his 2016 name change, but used stronger language than his son in talking about it. “We felt it was very important for us to find a different path. There were obviously major concerns,” he said. “And they were based on threats.”
The original suit was a key source of details for the Falwell hotel story, making the Bellos central players in the narrative. The suit claims Alton Hostel was formed by Falwell Jr. and his wife after they met Granda in 2012 when they were staying at the Fontainebleau. The couple “developed into a friendly relationship with Granda” and later took him on trips in Liberty University’s private jet as the relationship “evolved.” Part of the relationship included offers to provide Granda “with financial assistance.”
The suit said Fernandez Jr. heard about the offers through Granda, “his close friend at the time.” In his affidavit, Falwell Jr. described a breakfast at an unnamed Cuban restaurant with the Fernandezes and Granda.
The suit said Falwell Jr. promised a 50 percent share for the younger Fernandez in the hotel business, and that he and his girlfriend would be hired as managers. Falwell Jr. said that wasn’t true. “At not point during this meeting or thereafter did I make the alleged offers or promises to Mr. Fernandez,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.