MANHATTAN (CN) — California attorney Michael Avenatti expressed remorse in court Thursday but it was not enough to stop a federal judge from adding nearly three years to a prison term he has been serving since last summer.
“Because of my actions I will never practice law again. I will forever be branded a quote-unquote disgraced lawyer and worse,” the 51-year-old Avenatti told the judge, speaking for nearly a quarter of an hour at Plexiglas lectern in the courtroom. “I have destroyed my career, my relationships and my reputation, and have done collateral damage to my family, and my life.”
Avenatti appeared for sentencing in Manhattan sporting tan prison grab with leg shackles. The disbarred lawyer is already serving a 2 1/2-year sentence on a separate conviction for trying to extort Nike, and U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman denied requests earlier this week to let Avenatti wear a suit for his sentencing Thursday morning and to appear remotely.
The latest sentencing follows Avenatti's conviction in February on counts of wire fraud and identity theft for diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars that a publisher was paying the adult film actress Stormy Daniels for her tell-all in 2018.
Avenatti had insisted at trial that he had permission from Daniels, who was his client at the time, to pocket about $300,000 of the $800,000 advance on her autobiography “Full Disclosure.” Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, testified that he did not.
“Your honor, there is no doubt I made a series of mistakes and exercised poor judgment,” Avenatti told the court Thursday. “I own the conduct for which I was convicted, am accountable for it, and deserve just punishment.
“I have brought embarrassment and ridicule upon myself, and innocent third parties including my family, my children, my friends and the legal profession,” he continued. “Some have forgiven me; Many, most, never will.”
Though Furman gave Avenatti a four-year sentence on Thursday — two years for each of the counts on which Avenatti was convicted — the judge agreed to let Avenatti serve 18 months concurrently with his Nike sentence. After the end of the Nike sentence, Avenatti will serve another 30 months in prison for defrauding Daniels.
Avenatti urged the judge to consider the totality of his life, including his legal work prior his representation of Daniels, as well as recent legal work done for victims of the former R&B star R. Kelly while on out bail as defendant in this case.
The California lawyer came to represent Daniels during the single term of President Donald Trump when the actress sought to go public about a purported affair she had with Trump a decade earlier — a story that Trump's attorneys paid her $130,000 in hush money to keep quiet about before the 2016 presidential election. Trump continues to deny that he had sex with Daniels.
Avenatti spoke to the court Thursday about his motivations for representing Daniels as a client in 2018, insisting that he “took on her causes for all the right reasons.”
“To be clear, I agreed to represent Ms. Daniels because no one else had the guts to take her case, and I believed we could take down a sitting U.S. president who was the single biggest threat to democracy in modern times,” he said. “Nobody at the time, me included, could have predicted the success we would have and the notoriety that would follow, nobody.”
The publication of "Full Disclosure" in fall 2018 by St. Martin's Press came at a time when Avenatti’s law practice was failing financially even as he appeared regularly on cable television news channels.
Though Avenatti spoke of remorse Thursday, prosecutors noted in a sentencing submission last week that Avenatti failed to actually apologize for his crime in a purported letter of apology he recently sent Daniels.
The government said Avenatti should face “substantial” additional time in prison for the wire fraud conviction, recalling how Avenatti personally conducted “an extremely lengthy” cross-examination of Daniels at his trial. During that questioning, the brief goes on, Avenatti “berated his victim for lewd language and being a difficult client, questioned her invasively about marital and familial difficulties, and sought to cast her as crazy, much as he did during the course of his fraud to prevent her own agent and publisher from responding to her pleas for help.”
Avenatti cross-examined his former client after opting to abandon his federal defenders and represent himself.
“The defendant certainly had every right to defend himself at trial,” the government's brief continues. "But he is not entitled to a benefit for showing remorse, having done so only when convenient and only after seeking to humiliate his victim at a public trial, and denigrating and insulting her for months to her agent and publisher while holding himself out as taking up her cause against the powerful who might have taken advantage of her."
Federal defenders were back in Avenatti's corner for sentencing Thursday.
“Surely if ever a man is to receive credit for the good he has done, and his immediate misconduct assessed in the context of his overall life hitherto, it should be at the moment of his sentencing, when his very future hangs in the balance,” federal defender Tamara Giwa said in her closing remarks, quoting a sentencing memorandum that U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff delivered in the 2006 securities fraud trial of Richard Adelson. “This elementary principle of weighing the good with the bad, which is basic to all the great religious, moral philosophies, and systems of justice, was plainly part of what Congress had in mind when it directed courts to consider, as a necessary sentencing factor, 'the history and characteristics of the defendant.’”
Though prosecutors in the Adelson case had sought a sentence of 85 years, Rakoff imposed a term of just 42 months. Giwa asked Judge Furman to give Avenatti a sentence of three years and one day.
In a letter to the court, Avenatti's defense argued that he should face no additional time in prison for the wire fraud conviction. His conviction for aggravated identity theft required a mandatory two-year prison sentence, but the defense said any sentence should be served at the same time as the sentence in the Nike case. Avenatti was convicted of threatening to ruin the shoemaker’s reputation if it did not pay him up to $25 million.
After Judge Furman imposed the four-year sentence, Avenatti hugged close friends in the courtroom gallery and blew a kiss before shuffling back into the custody of the Bureau of Prisons.
He has been detained at the Terminal Island low-security prison in San Pedro, California, but asked to serve out his sentence at Federal Correctional Institution - Sheridan in Oregon.
Avenatti still faces a retrial in California on charges that he cheated clients and others of millions of dollars there.