Suspended California attorney Michael Avenatti on Thursday pleaded guilty to five felonies and “admitted that he engaged in a scheme to defraud four of his legal clients,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California announced. In court documents, Avenatti said he wished to “be accountable,” save the government money, and “save his family further embarrassment.”
Avenatti made the guilty pleas as part of an “open” plea, meaning that they did not stem from an agreement with prosecutors. They included four counts of wire fraud and one count of “endeavoring to obstruct the administration of the Internal Revenue Code,” the DOJ said. The wire fraud charges involved the embezzlement of “money that should have been paid to clients.” The U.S. Attorney’s office now must decide whether to pursue the remaining charges of a more sprawling indictment.
The wire fraud counts, per the DOJ, involved Avenatti’s decision to divert client money away from client trust accounts. The money was “misapproat[ed],” the DOJ indicated, and Avenatti “l[ied] to the clients about receiving the money or, in one case, claim[ed] that the money had already been sent to the client.”
The tax count involved separate accusations, the DOJ explained:
Avenatti admitted that he corruptly obstructed and impeded the IRS’s efforts to collect unpaid payroll taxes, which the government estimates amount to approximately $5 million and include payroll taxes that he been withheld from the paychecks of employees of the Avenatti-owned company that operated Tully’s Coffee.
“Avenatti faces a statutory maximum sentence of 83 years in federal prison,” the DOJ added.
The pleas came exactly two weeks after a judge in the Southern District of New York sentenced Avenatti to four years in prison for defrauding his porn star former client Stormy Daniels (whose real name is Stephanie Clifford).
Avenatti is also serving a two-and-a-half year sentence for conspiring to defraud Nike.
The five guilty pleas were part of a massive indictment that included 31 other counts, the DOJ noted. Federal prosecutors said they were “reviewing the case” to ascertain how and whether to move forward on the remaining counts.
Those 31 counts include six wire fraud charges, 18 tax counts, two counts of bank fraud involving attempts to “obtain loans from a federally insured financial institution,” aggravated identity theft (for “misusing the name of a tax preparer in relation to the bank fraud scheme”), and four counts of bankruptcy fraud (for “alleged false statements” after Avenatti’s “law firm was forced into bankruptcy”).
Part of the complicated case ended with a mistrial last August after six weeks of trial. Avenatti convinced a judge that federal prosecutors deliberately failed to turn over several years of communications with expert witnesses and therefore deprived him of evidence that he believed he could have used to defend himself.
According to court documents filed this week, the mistrial involved a case which sought to litigate counts 1 to 10 of the original indictment. Avenatti pleaded guilty to Counts 5, 8, 9, 10 and 19 of the indictment on Thursday.
On Sunday, June 12, Avenatti filed a notice of intent to change his not guilty pleas. That document says Avenatti wished to plead “open,” or without an actual agreement or deal with prosecutors:
Despite repeated efforts over the last year by Mr. Avenatti and his counsel, including substantial efforts made in the last 30 days, defendant has been unable to reach a plea agreement with the government. Mr. Avenatti wishes to plea in order to be accountable; accept responsibility; avoid his former clients being further burdened; save the Court and the government significant resources; and save his family further embarrassment.
The original criminal complaint against Avenatti was 198 pages long.
A sentencing hearing in connection with the guilty pleas is scheduled before U.S. District Judge James V. Selna is scheduled for Sept. 19. However, the judge is expected to vacate the sentencing date if the government chooses to prosecute the remaining charges that were not subject to the plea.
The original indictment and some of the guilty plea documents are below:
[Image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]
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