MANHATTAN (CN) — From his famous former clients to his adversaries, Michael Avenatti runs in some star-studded circles. Which of those A-list names can feature when the embattled lawyer begins trial next week took focus Wednesday at a marathon four-hour hearing.
“Nothing would please me more than to keep references to Trump and Stormy Daniels out of the trial,” U.S. District Judge Paul G. Gardephe said at the hearing in Manhattan this afternoon.
Avenatti was catapulted to national prominence for his flamboyant representation of adult film star Stormy Daniels in a 2018 defamation lawsuit against President Trump, but the federal charges at issue accuse Avenatti of trying to extort Nike for tens of millions of dollars.
Conceding that some limited references to the Daniels-Trump case would be necessary, however, Gardephe noted that the Nike allegations stem in part at least on Avenatti’s background.
“I can’t pretend there was an immaculate conception here,” the judge said.
Prosecutors say the extortion occurred in March 2019 when Avenatti threatened to go public, just before a quarterly earnings call, with misconduct allegations against Nike employees.
Avenatti made the overture on behalf of his basketball coach client Gary Franklin, according to the indictment, which says he threatened to expose the 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 $15 million to $25 million.
Franklin coached 2018 top NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton on his amateur league team California Supreme and is expected to testify at Avenatti’s trial, the parties said Wednesday. Gardephe called it unlikely that Geragos will testify.
It seems Avenatti’s defense team intends to argue that Franklin authorized Avenatti to seek the money from Nike in exchange for an internal investigation. To that end, Gardephe said he would allow the defense to tell the jury about Franklin’s state of mind.
“What Franklin wanted matters,” said Avenatti attorney Howard Srebnick Wednesday. Over the course of many months, he said, Franklin expressed a desire to root out corruption at Nike, and hired Avenatti to do that.
Though Avenatti’s reputation as a thorn in Trump’s side may have won him clients like Franklin, prosecutors say any mention of the polarizing president could bias the jurors.
They also brushed off suggestions by the defense that Avenatti’s legal troubles came at the Trump administration’s request, retribution for the Daniels case.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Gardephe emphasized that he wouldn’t allow the defense to turn this case into a “referendum” on the Daniels cases.
Gardephe also noted that one reason Avenatti wanted Geragos on the case was because of the latter lawyer’s experience representing polarizing activist and former NFL player Colin Kaepernick in the quarterback’s deal with Nike.
Still the judge said jurors can still get the gist of the allegations without mentioning Kaepernick’s name. He called Stormy Daniels’ name necessary at trial but said the parties could say of Geragos only that he represented a “prominent football player.”
Jury questionnaires are set to be distributed in Manhattan on Monday, followed by questioning of potential jurors Tuesday and opening arguments.
Gardephe spent the first hour and a half of Wednesday’s conference reading aloud his opinion on several pending motions by the parties.
Avenatti had disputed having his financial records be a part of the case; the government wants to use them to show he was $15 million in debt at the time of the alleged crime and linked his debt to his illegal activities in March 2019. Avenatti “vehemently disputes” he owed that much, Gardephe said.
A total of $7.2 million in judgments had been entered against Avenatti that he did not dispute, however, Gardephe continued, including $2 million he owed in child and spouse support and a tax warrant for $1.5 million. But the judge said he wouldn’t allow the government to say how the debts arose, because it could prejudice the jury into thinking Avenatti had not taken care of his children or that he is dishonest.
Following the revocation of his bail in California, where unrelated charges are pending, Avenatti is awaiting trial from behind bars at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. Gardephe said Wednesday he was “deeply disturbed” by a letter from the defense that they were encountering obstacles in meeting with their client at the prison and made a rare promise to get involved if Avenatti continued to have trouble accessing his lawyers.
Avenatti wore short-sleeved navy prison scrubs over a brown T-shirt in court Wednesday. In dark-rimmed glasses, he appeared alert and engaged, frequently passing notes to his lawyers.
A federal judge in California ordered Avenatti held without bail on separate bank and wire fraud charges last week. Avenatti was then transported to New York to begin the extortion trial.
Avenatti faces yet more charges in New York over his representation of Daniels. After he was charged last year with stealing $300,000 from Daniels to fund his personal and business expenses, including car payments on a Ferrari, Avenatti announced he was representing three alleged victims of accused pedophile R. Kelly.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.