MANHATTAN (CN) — The celebrity attorney who shot to fame by taking on Donald Trump for hush-money payments that spurred a criminal investigation into the former president's business was sentenced Thursday to two and a half years in prison.
Michael Avenatti spoke for seven minutes to those assembled for his sentencing at the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, where a federal jury convicted him nearly 18 months prior of threatening the sporting goods giant Nike that he would expose a corruption scandal unless it paid him millions of dollars.
“Every father wants his children to be proud of him," Avenatti said, crying face-down at the courtoom lectern. "But I want mine to be ashamed. If they are ashamed, it means their moral compass is exactly where it should be,”
His voice catching, the 50-year-old father of three admitted that he had “lost his way” as a lawyer.
“I betrayed my own values, my friends, my family and myself,” he said. “I betrayed my profession. I became driven by things that don’t matter in life.
“TV and Twitter, your honor, mean nothing,” the disgraced attorney said continued.
U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe took up the mantle of impugning of Avenatti's character before handing down a 30-month sentence.
“Mr. Avenatti had become drunk on the power of his platform, or what he perceived his platform to be,” the George W. Bush appointee said. "He had become someone who operated as if the rules that apply to everyone else didn’t apply to him.”
Last February, Avenatti was convicted on three counts — extortion, transmission of interstate communications with intent to extort, and wire fraud — after a jury rejected his claims that he was a lawyer acting in good faith when he negotiated with Nike on behalf of a California youth basketball coach.
“Mr. Avenatti’s conduct was outrageous,” Gardephe said Thursday. “He hijacked his client’s claims and he used those claims to further his own agenda, which was to extort millions of dollars from Nike for himself."
At trial, prosecutors showed video footage of Avenatti in a meeting with attorneys for Nike where he threatened to hold a press conference and contact The New York Times unless Nike paid up.
“I’ll go take $10 billion off your client’s market cap,” Avenatti warned.
To call off the press conference, Avenatti wanted more than $1.5 million on top of Nike's promise to hire Avenatti and co-counsel Mark Geragos on a retainer between $15 million and $25 million to conduct an internal investigation.
“It’s worth more in exposure for me to just blow the lid on this thing,” Avenatti crowed to attorneys for Nike on tape. “A few million dollars doesn’t move the needle with me.”
Avenatti at the time had become a recognizable face through his representation of porn star Stormy Daniels in her suit against then-President Donald Trump. While that civil case would later bring about the conviction of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, spurring a criminal investigation against the Trump Organization in New York that has outlasted Trump's time in office, Avenatti's celebrity would not.
Thursday's sentencing hearing ran for 90 minutes, with Gardephe saying the government's recordings “provided the most compelling evidence at trial.”
He read several of the California-based lawyer's profanity-laced threats aloud, including one where Avenatti boasted: “Have you ever held the balls of the client in your hand where you could take $5 to $6 billion market cap off of them?”
“This case was not about hard-nosed negotiations,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew D. Podolsky said at Thursday’s hearing. “It wasn’t about a thin line between lawyers during negotiations. It was about deceit, it was about threats, it was about taking from others, and it was about abuse of trust.”
Thursday's sentencing occurred after the Covid-19 global pandemic forced six adjournments of proceedings in Manhattan. Due to the virus, Avenatti was released last April from pretrial detention to home confinement in Venice, California. Gardephe on Thursday set a September surrender date for Avenatti, allowing the former lawyer to return home until then.
In heavy rain outside the Lower Manhattan courtroom, Avenatti departed without giving any statement.
Federal sentencing guidelines would have put Avenatti away for 11 years minimum, but Avenatti asked for a downward variance from the recommendation due to the purported “inhumane conditions of his confinement” at the Metropolitan Correctional Center federal detention facility before, during and after trial.
Last month, Avenatti requested a sentence of just six months in prison and a year of home confinement. His attorney, Miami-based lawyer Scott Srebnick, characterized Avenatti in the sentencing submission as "a first-time offender in a white-collar case."
The government meanwhile called for a “very substantial term of imprisonment” and for Avenatti to pay $1 million in restitution to Nike for attorney fees it incurred in the case. It said Avenatti should only pay restitution to Nike after he fully pays any restitution owing to the individual victim in this case and to the victims in the other two criminal cases that are pending against him in Southern District of New York and the Central District of California.
“The defendant, a prominent attorney and media personality with a large public following, betrayed his client and sought to enrich himself by weaponizing his public profile in an attempt to extort a publicly-traded company out of tens of millions of dollars,” the government’s sentencing memo states. “This was an egregious abuse of trust, and it warrants real and serious punishment.”
Avenatti has pleaded not guilty to all charges in the other two cases against him.
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