MANHATTAN (CN) — Despite his 2020 conviction for extortion, Michael Avenatti told a judge Tuesday that he wants to represent himself in the fraud trial that opened against him this week.
"I still am technically a member of the Bar," Avenatti said on Tuesday, citing a “breakdown” with his lawyers over trial strategy and his own personal familiarity with the witness prosecutors had called to the stand Tuesday.
Avenatti, who is suspended from practicing law in his home state of California, made the request before his federal defenders could begin cross-examination of his former paralegal Judy Regnier.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman acknowledged the possibility “some strategic gamesmanship here” with Avenatti’s request, but chose to allow the request during an extended break Tuesday afternoon.
“It does not give you license to abuse the dignity of the courtroom," the judge advised Avenatti on his right to waive counsel for the duration of his criminal trial in New York federal court. "You do not have the right to manipulate these proceedings or cause undue delay," the Obama-appointed judge cautioned Avenatti just before he formally asked to represent himself.
Appearing in court Tuesday via live two-way video feed, Regnier testified about her intimate familiarity with the shaky financial state of Avenatti's law firm in California where she worked as a paralegal and office manager for about 11 year.
She was the second witness called by prosecutors in Avenatti's trial on a criminal indictment alleging one count of wire fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. Prosecutors accuse Avenatti of faking the signature of Stormy Daniels while representing the adult film actress, causing a publishing house to transmit advance payments as part of Daniels' 2018 book deal, totaling nearly $300,000, to his bank account instead of hers.
Regnier testified against Avenatti back in 2020 as well when he was tried and convicted in the Southern District of New York for attempting to extort Nike. She testified in those proceedings that Avenatti saw the NCAA corruption scandal as an opportunity to pressure the sportswear giant into paying him millions, offering a “light at the end of tunnel” for his financial woes. Avenatti was $15 million in debt at the time, the prosecution showed in that case.
Avenatti is no longer eligible to practice law in California because his felony convictions in the first trial led to a suspension of his law license. He was sentenced in July to 2 1/2 years in prison and returned for his second trial in the district on Monday, sandwiching another criminal detour in California hat ended in a mistrial.
During direct questioning on Tuesday, Regnier painted the Eagan Avenatti firm as short on funds in 2018 around the time he was handling Daniels' book deal. “We were having trouble making ends meet,” she testified on Tuesday, speaking to the shaky financial state around the time that her brash employer took on the porn actress Daniels as his star-making legal client.
The firm was unable to make insurance premium payments and evicted from their offices shortly before Thanksgiving 2018 for nonpayment of approximately five months of rent, Regnier testified. "They did not have the funds to pay" the $50,000-a-month rent, she clarified on direct questioning.
Avenatti sustained multiple objections during 90 minutes of cross-examining Regnier on Tuesday afternoon and told Judge Furman he expects to go for another 30 to 40 minutes when her testimony resumes tomorrow.
During the course of cross-examination, Avenatti was able to coax confirmation from his former employee that he had once paid her $100,000 bonus and paid for multiple trips to Cabo San Lucas.
Avenatti, 50, has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
"I am completely innocent in this case," he told reporters outside the courthouse on Tuesday afternoon.
"It should have never been brought and I'm hopeful at the end of the case the jury is going to agree."
Avenatti said his two decades at as an attorney comforts his decision to self-represent in the trial.
"It's my arena," he said. "It's where I'm most at home, and I think it gives me the best chance at winning."
Judge Furman appointed Avenatti's prior lawyers from the Federal Defenders of New York to remain as standby counsel, on hand to advise and assist him during the trial as necessary. The federal defenders declined to comment on Avenatti's decision to invoke his right to self-representation.
Prosecutors on Tuesday afternoon said it was "very unlikely but possible" that their star witness Daniels would begin her witness testimony on Wednesday.
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