Federal Defenders Step In for Avenatti at Second Prosecution

Attorney Michael Avenatti. (Courthouse News photo/Josh Russell)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Saying that the disgraced celebrity lawyer can’t pay them, Michael Avenatti’s legal team won permission Friday to withdraw from his next New York trial.

Avenatti will now be represented by Robert Baum from the Federal Defenders of New York.  

Avenatti’s former counsel Thomas Warren had described an unspecified “nonwaivable conflict of interest” last week in a motion to withdraw, compounded by financial burden for his Los Angeles-based firm.

“While we are excited about our future prospects, Warren Terzian is a young Los Angeles firm with no New York office and no attorneys barred in New York, and we have no expectation of any compensation in this case,” Warren wrote in the July 27 affidavit.

Avenatti’s fortunes have fallen dramatically since he first walked through the doors of the Southern District of New York two years ago as then-counsel for pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels. 

Once cable TV’s go-to legal analyst for insight to President Donald Trump’s legal woes in the Russia investigation, Avenetti now stands besieged by three criminal indictments and related civil litigation. In New York earlier this year, a federal jury found him guilty of extorting Nike for millions of dollars, and he has been awaiting trial in the same court in another case accusing him of defrauding his most famous client of $300,000 in an advance that she earned from her book deal.  

Avenatti faces allegations on the West Coast as well, however, related to five other clients who say he cheated them out of their settlement money. 

Calling the cases similar and complaining of the financial burden of fighting twin prosecutions from coast to coast, Avenatti tried to move the Stormy Daniels case to California a little more than a year ago.

U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts first denied that request in May 2019. 

When Batts died this past February, Avenatti’s case was reassigned to U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, who rejected a bid to reconsider that ruling today. 

“If anything, the argument for transfer is even weaker today than it was then,” Furman said, noting that Avenatti’s new federal defender means he is no longer paying for his counsel.  

Fighting the case in New York no longer damages Avenatti’s ability to earn a living because he has been suspended from the bar in California and his business is “practically nonexistent at this time,” the judge added. 

Avenatti’s trial had been set for Oct. 13 this year before the shake-up in his legal defense team — and before the staying power of the coronavirus pandemic became more apparent.  

Like most high-profile federal court proceedings, today’s hearing in Avenatti’s case occurred via teleconference. Avenatti, who was released from jail in April amid fears of infection, participated in the call, but he said little other than identify himself.  

Judge Furman adjourned the date indefinitely, intending to revisit the matter in October. 

The conflict of interest cited by Avenatti’s former counsel has been filed under seal, and the judge will decide in the future whether to make it public, inviting the press to argue for access.

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