MANHATTAN (CN) — Already sentenced to federal prison for attempted extortion in New York, Michael Avenatti kicked off jury selection Thursday for a separate indictment charging him with stealing from the adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is expected to be the star witness for the prosecution when Avenatti's trial begins in-person at the Manhattan federal courthouse on Monday, Jan. 24.
During his brief engagement as an attorney for Daniels in 2018, the charismatic Avenatti burnished his own celebrity by challenging a hush-money deal that barred Daniels from going public about her alleged sexual relationship with the 45th American president, Donald Trump, before he took office.
Avenatti, 50, is accused of trying to rip off Daniels by directing her literary agent to send him the advance from her book deal that he had helped to secure. The book details Daniels’ alleged encounter with Trump in 2006 and the subsequent hush money payment facilitated by Trump’s then-personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen ahead of the 2016 election.
Cohen would later plead guilty to making payments with the intent of influencing a federal election, but Trump denies that he and Daniels ever had sex.
Daniels announced she had terminated Avenatti’s legal representation in March 2019 and replaced him with the Tulsa-based Clark Brewster, but by then her 2018 memoir “Full Disclosure” had already been published with a foreword from Avenatti.
According to his indictment, Avenatti used the roughly $300,000 proceeds from Daniels' book deal to buy himself a Ferrari, airfare and hotel stays, as well as to pay the salaries of people who worked at his law firm and a coffee business he owned.
Potential jurors were asked during oral voir dire questioning on Thursday whether anything they had read, seen or heard about Avenatti or Daniels might make it difficult for them to be a fair and impartial juror in this case.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman ruled on Tuesday that Avenatti’s defense can cross-examine Daniels about her belief in the paranormal and purported history of “visions.” While touring the United States for strip club appearances, the New Orleans-based Daniels also performs tarot card readings and hosts a ghost-hunting television show called “Spooky Babes."
While prosecutors failed to have Daniels' beliefs about the supernatural ruled off-limits at trial, the Obama-appointed Judge Furman did prohibit Avenatti from asking Daniels on cross-examination about her mental health records and past visits to therapists.
For several months in 2018, Avenatti briefly emerged as a cocky and pugnacious foe to the Republican president in hundreds of cable television appearances during Trump’s term in office, even “exploring” a potential presidential run in 2020. Avenatti's arrest in 2019 on multiple indictments put those notions to rest.
The first of the indictments occurred in March that year, and Avenatti was sentenced in July 2021 to 2 1/2 years in prison for trying to extort Nike. Because his felony convictions in the Southern District of New York led to a suspension of his law license, Avenatti is no longer eligible to practice law in California.
The indictment related to Daniels alleges that Avenatti lied to the actress repeatedly, telling her he was working on getting book fees from her publisher, when in fact Avenatti had already received the money and was putting it toward expenses from luxury car payments to dry cleaning.
“It’s a straightforward fraud,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Podolsky told a federal magistrate in 2019.
Avenatti pleaded not guilty and was released on bail of $300,000 — the same amount he is accused of taking from Daniels. Eight months later, in January 2020, Avenatti was arrested and jailed for violating the terms of his bail in a separate fraud case in the Central District of California.
Since August 2020, Avenatti has been represented by Robert Baum from the Federal Defenders of New York, who stepped in after Avenatti’s former legal team said he could no longer pay them.
Released to home confinement from the Metropolitan Correctional Center federal detention due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Avenatti has been awaiting his upcoming trial in Manhattan federal under house arrest in Venice, California.
Avenatti has claimed that prosecution and the “inhumane conditions of his confinement” at the at the now-closed Metropolitan Correctional Center before, during and after trial, were politically motivated.
Last August, a California judge declared a mistrial in a separate embezzlement trial of Avenatti, that charged him with stealing millions in settlement money from his clients.
U.S. District Judge James V. Selna, of the Central District of California, ruled on technical grounds that federal prosecutors failed to turn over relevant financial evidence to Avenatti.
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