Chalking up the lawyer’s “blind ambition” for his downfall, a federal judge sentenced attorney Michael Avenatti to four years in prison for defrauding his most prominent client, Stormy Daniels.
A portion of that sentence will be served concurrently with Avenatti’s two-and-a-half year sentence for conspiring to defraud Nike.
Ultimately, Avenatti’s sentence amounts to an additional two-and-a-half years.
“I Will Forever Be Branded a ‘Disgraced Lawyer’ and Worse”
Before the sentencing proceedings, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman rejected the now-incarcerated 51-year-old’s request to dress up formally to court in a suit, and he arrived in court sporting tan prison garb.
It was a sharp contrast to the celebrity attorney who was once a darling of TV and social media.
“I disappointed several people and failed in a cataclysmic way,” Avenatti said. “I will forever be branded a ‘disgraced lawyer’ and worse.”
After a jury convicted Avenatti of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft this past February, the California lawyer began serving his sentence in the Nike case.
“This is the conclusion of what—thanks to the pandemic—has been three years of investigating and prosecuting the defendant for a litany of crimes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew D. Podolsky told the judge.
Strip away the large personalities and media interest, Podolsky said, it’s a “very personal” and “very sorry story.”
The prosecutor added that it was about an “incredible personal betrayal” of Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
Avenatti’s represented Daniels in her attempt to free herself from a non-disclosure agreement that kept her from going public with her alleged affair with former President Donald Trump. They both became social media and cable TV stars in the process, and Daniels parlayed that into a book titled Full Disclosure.
A jury found that Avenatti defrauded Daniels out of nearly $300,000 of her $800,000 advance, through a months-long scheme that Podolsky described on Thursday as “cockamamie.” Avenatti unsuccessfully claimed at trial that he was entitled to the remuneration.
“Quite Smart and Has Formidable Legal Skills”
Representing himself at trial, Avenatti personally interrogated Daniels about her beliefs in the paranormal in an attempt to discredit her, and he tried to mount a defense that he was entitled to the money that the jury found he stole from her. The judge opined that Avenatti may have thought he could have gotten away with it because of his client’s “unorthodox career” as a pornographic film actress and “unorthodox beliefs.”
Even the sentencing judge agreed that Avenatti displayed talent at his own trial.
“As much as I took issue with some of his conduct at trial, he is quite smart and has formidable legal skills,” Furman said.
Daniels did not speak at the sentencing, but her attorney Clark O. Brewster did, saying that Daniels went beyond lying to and cheating her.
“To talk about how great a champion he was is truly offensive to her,” Brewster said.
Brewster added that Avenatti also badmouthed her to third parties, calling that conduct “truly shocking.”
Before sentencing, Avenatti crafted a carefully worded apology letter.
“I write to apologize to you for my actions and conduct,” Avenatti wrote. Over the last three years and especially over the last several months, I have had a significant amount of time to reflect on my life, our friendship and my legal representation of you. It is obvious that I failed you in many respects and that I disappointed you and let you down in multiple ways.”
Judge Furman asked Avenatti’s attorneys whether the sentiments were “too little, too late”—or whether they even represented an acceptance of responsibility. Avenatti answered categorically, if he didn’t quite answer the question.
“I stand by the sincerity of my letter to Ms. Daniels,” he said.
Furman noted in his sentencing that Avenatti’s remark was not responsive to his question.
“Very Tragic to Him”
Avenatti’s pro se representation stumbled on notable occasions. Avenatti attempted to open his summations by telling an anecdote about his father’s supposed stint as a hot dog vendor.
According to prosecutors, this was another sleight of hand to the jury.
“The defendant’s tenuous relationship with the truth was apparent during trial, including in circumstances that seem gratuitous or even trivial,” the government wrote in a footnote of a sentencing brief. “For example, the defendant began his summation by stating, ‘When my father was a teenager, he sold hot dogs at a ballpark.'”
At the time, Judge Furman sustained the objection. Avenatti didn’t get to complete the anecdote, but prosecutors claimed this was a lie.
After the trial, Avenatti told Inner City Press that his father, “Bill,” was instructed to cover broken hotdogs with mustard to sell them.
“In fact, the defendant’s father, William John Avenatti, was an executive for Anheuser-Busch,” Podolsky wrote, claiming the story was a tall tale lifted from Avenatti’s standby counsel Robert Baum.
Avenatti’s lawyer Tamara Giwa said that her client had a difficult childhood that he overcame through a diligent work ethic. He said that he put himself through college and law school without his parents’ help and dedicated his practice to society’s outcasts.
“The fact that Mr. Avenatti will never practice law again is very tragic to him,” Giwa said.
Avenatti’s legal jeopardy is not over because he has another trial looming in California, where the first attempt to prosecute him ended in a mistrial when the government failed to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence.
(Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
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