MANHATTAN (CN) — Kicking off a trial where Michael Avenatti is charged with attempting to extort Nike, the embattled lawyer’s defense team told the jury Monday that his client fought to correct the athletic-wear company’s rampant corruption.
"They wanted justice above all else," said defense attorney Howard Srebnick, of the firm Black Srebnick, referring to Avenatti and his clients. "They wanted Nike to do the right thing."
Srebnick noted Avenatti’s reputation for being “brash, aggressive, tenacious, bullish.”
But, he continued, in the case of Avenatti’s client Gary Franklin — an amateur basketball coach who thought Nike was behind some dirty dealings in boys’ hoops — Avenatti was just doing his job.
Avenatti was “being a lawyer, fighting for what he believed his client wanted,” and if that meant he had to grab the tiger by the tail … that's okay," Srebnick said.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, accuse Avenatti of trying to extort Nike for tens of millions of dollars by threatening to go public, just before a quarterly earnings call, with misconduct allegations against Nike employees. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Benjamin Sobelman characterized Avenatti’s actions as a "shakedown” in his opening argument Wednesday.
The indictment says Avenatti, 48, contacted Nike on Franklin’s behalf, threatening to expose its alleged wrongdoing unless the company forked over $1.5 million. Avenatti also allegedly told Nike it must hire him and celebrity attorney Mark Geragos to conduct an internal investigation for a cool retainer fee at between $15 million and $25 million.
“He thought Nike would be willing to pay, and pay a lot, to keep it all under wraps,” Sobelman said, referring to Avenatti in his 25-minute opening arguments.
Both sides seemed to agree that Franklin hired Avenatti to take on Nike because of Avenatti’s outspoken representation of adult-film star Stormy Daniels in her defamation lawsuit against President Trump.
Avenatti “had the platform to expose what happened at Nike,” said Srebnick. “That’s why they chose him.”
While Srebnick revealed to the jury that Nike faces an SEC investigation, the prosecution emphasized that Nike is not on trial, nor is Franklin, whose team California Supreme had been sponsored by Nike for over 20 years.
Sobelman said Franklin wanted two Nike employees fired for alleged violations of athlete amateurism rules.
Coach Franklin had seen Avenatti on television and was impressed.
“He thought the defendant seemed willing to stand up to power,” Sobelman said of Franklin. Instead Avenatti betrayed him, Sobelman continued.
Srebnick said Avenatti’s actions matched the wishes of his client and Jeffrey Auerbach, Franklin’s associate.
“They wanted to light the fuse,” Srebnick said. “They wanted answers.”
The defense painted Nike as a corrupt entity frightened of Avenatti's huge platform. They also accused attorneys at the firm Boies Schiller, who were present at the meetings, of trying to set Avenatti up.
Geragos had also been present with Avenatti at the meetings, after his successful representation of activist and former NFL player Colin Kaepernick during a settlement with Nike. Geragos has not been charged in the Avenatti case, though he was listed in early versions of charging documents as an unindicted, unnamed co-conspirator. He is now referred in court papers as “Attorney-1.”
U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe ruled earlier this week that Avenatti could not force Geragos to testify. Geragos’ lawyer asserted that his client would continue to exercise his Fifth Amendment right to silence rather than testify, since the government, during its meetings with him, had not promised him he could never be charged.
“Given that most of the communications between Avenatti and the Nike lawyers were recorded, the trial is likely to turn on the communications that took place between Franklin and Avenatti,” Gardephe noted in his ruling.
Avenatti has been in jail for weeks after his arrest on unrelated bank and wire fraud charges. He wore a suit to court Wednesday.
The jury of 12, with three alternates, was selected early Wednesday afternoon after first convening Monday morning. The panel includes five women and 10 men.
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