Miami-Dade County

Miami builder in fight with Falwell shares story. He won’t talk about Michael Cohen

Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., in a 2016 photo. He’s in a court fight over a 2013 South Beach hotel deal.
Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., in a 2016 photo. He’s in a court fight over a 2013 South Beach hotel deal. AP

When Jett Bello first met Jerry Falwell Jr. at a Miami Beach hotel, the evangelical leader seemed devout, sharp and ready to crunch numbers on real estate.

“ ‘Praise you. May God bless you,’ ” Bello, a Miami builder, recalled Falwell saying during the 2012 meeting in the Loews Miami Beach lobby. “He was generally a nice, well-spoken guy who was very astute with his questions.”

Bello, 46, said he soon soured on Falwell, president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and a prominent supporter in the evangelical movement for President Donald Trump.

Falwell is a defendant in a 2015 lawsuit filed by Bello and his son, Gordon. The litigation claims Falwell promised Gordon Bello a share of the hostel business that Falwell opened with Gordon’s high school friend, Giancarlo Granda, a former Fontainebleau pool attendant.

The suit claims Bello and Granda were supposed to be partners after bringing the hostel idea to Falwell in that 2012 gathering at the Loews, but that Falwell ended up just picking Granda to run the Miami Hostel at 810 Alton Rd., sometimes known as the Alton Hostel.

It’s a story that has attracted national attention over the curiosity of a top voice for the Christian right backing a South Beach venture with a hotel worker he and his wife befriended while on vacation at the Fontainebleau.

The 2015 lawsuit by the Bellos said Granda was flown in private jets with Falwell and his wife, Rebecca. It also included affidavits from real estate agents quoting Falwell saying he wanted to find a business that could provide income for Granda.

The story became even more tantalizing earlier this month with reports that Michael Cohen, the jailed former lawyer to President Trump, was recorded recounting a 2016 trip to Florida to prevent the release of photos embarrassing to Falwell.

Jett Bello agreed to an interview Thursday, offering his version of discussions with Falwell about the 2013 purchase of the Miami Hostel for $4..6 million. A Falwell entity still owns it, with Falwell son Trey and Granda listed as the officers of the company behind the two-story property with dormitory-style sleeping arrangements and enough room for about 120 guests, according to court documents.

While the elder Bello answered questions about Falwell, he declined to say whether he had ever met Michael Cohen, now serving three years for tax evasion and other charges. “I’m not at liberty to discuss that at this moment,” Bello said.

Bello also wouldn’t talk about another twist in the story made public this week: that he and his son changed their names over what the younger Bello said was a matter connected to the Falwell dispute.

The 2015 lawsuit was filed under the Bellos’ previous identities: Jesus Fernandez Sr. and Jesus Fernandez Jr. They both successfully petitioned a court in June 2016 for the change to Bello, the maiden name of the elder Fernandez’s mother.

Gordon Bello, a top aide to Miami-Dade Commission Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson, declined to comment this week, citing the litigation. In an affidavit filed this week, the 28-year-old said he changed his name in 2016 “due to an occurrence directly related to the subject matter of this lawsuit.”

Last year a a judge dismissed the elder Bello as a plaintiff in the suit, which had been dismissed and then refiled in 2017. Jett Bello wouldn’t provide details on why he wanted a new name. “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.”

A Falwell lawyer was not available for an interview Wednesday, but Falwell has denied the Bellos’ allegations in court papers. Late last year, he filed an affidavit confirming meeting with the two but refuting allegations he promised the younger Bello a role in a venture. “This short meeting in a hotel lobby did not result in any agreement,” Falwell wrote in the Dec. 4 affidavit. “I did not make any of the alleged promises or offers suggested in Mr. Fernandez’s pleading.”

A judge has already dismissed two of three counts in the original suit, leaving an allegation of breach of contract to resolve. The suit claims the Bellos put in time to help Falwell land the deal for the Alton Hostel on the promise that Gordon Bello would be part of the business.

The younger Bello’s girlfriend at the time was running a Miami Beach hostel, and the suit claims the expertise from that business made the Alton Road venture possible. Falwell lawyers argued the Bellos were retroactively trying to improperly claim the role of real estate brokers in the transaction, despite not having a license to serve in that role.

Falwell said he and his wife loaned $1.8 million to the project to fund part of the purchase and renovations. The holding company set up to buy the property for $4.6 million in February 2013 only listed Falwell’s son, Trey, as a partner. Jett Bello said the agreement was that his son and Granda would be the partners in the business. While Granda was added to the corporate papers by the end of the year, Bello said promises to add his son to the corporation never materialized.

Jett Bello said he was there when the Falwells first toured the Alton, spending about two hours with the owner in 2012. Falwell, a former real estate lawyer, liked what he saw but wanted to check the books next.

“ ’I need to see the rent rolls,’ ” Bello said Falwell told him. “ ’Income. I need to see receipts.’ ”

“He’s a smart guy,” Bello said.

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