The spectacular fall of one of former President Donald Trump’s erstwhile opponents reached a new nadir on Thursday, as a federal judge dealt a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence to Michael Avenatti for trying to extort Nike.
“Mr. Avenatti’s conduct was outrageous. He hijacked his client’s claims, and he used those claims to further his own agenda,” U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe said toward the close of a roughly 90-minute sentencing hearing.
The judge added later: “Mr. Avenatti became drunk on the power of his platform—or what he perceived his platform to be.”
When he represented adult film actress Stormy Daniels, Avenatti nurtured a public image as an advocate for Davids fighting against government and corporate Goliaths. He amassed a huge social media following and popularized the hashtag #Basta, Italian for “Enough,” and burnished his pugilistic reputation with the tagline “Fight Club.” His ubiquitous cable news TV appearances during the height of the Russia investigation stirred rumors of a possible presidential run.
Then, everything came crashing down in rapid order.
“I lost my way. I betrayed my values, my friends, my family and then, myself. I became driven by the things that don’t matter in life,” Avenatti told the judge on Thursday, during hour-long sentencing proceedings.
“TV and Twitter, your honor, mean nothing,” the 50-year-old added.
Though sentenced on Thursday in the Southern District of New York, Avenatti continues to face a parallel prosecution in the same court involving his most famous client: Daniels.
“He Lost His Way”
After prosecutors from coast to coast leveled three separate indictments against him, Avenatti cast his criminal exposure as blowback from the Nike corporation and the Trump administration to crush a critic. The first of the cases accused him of trying to shake down Nike with exposure of a corruption scandal unless they paid him more than $20 million. Southern District of New York prosecutors denied Avenatti’s claims of political motivations, and a federal jury rejected his defenses, convicting him in February 2020 on all counts of attempted extortion and defrauding a client.
In June, Avenatti’s defense attorneys Scott A. Srebnick and E. Danya Perry argued in their written briefing that a six-month maximum sentence would be enough for their client in light of his Icarus-worthy “epic fall.” Federal prosecutors considered such a sentence far too light, asking for a term of imprisonment more in line with the probation department’s request for eight years. Judge Gardephe’s sentence, of course, landed far lower than that.
For Perry, Avenatti’s larger-than-life public persona was more than branding.
“He always had an interest and passion for the law,” Perry told Judge Gardephe, adding that her client “really did want to be the David fighting the Goliath.”
Avenatti began his remarks by echoing those themes.
“Your honor, when I was a child, I dreamed about becoming a lawyer. Other kids dreamed about becoming athletes… but I dreamed about becoming a lawyer, about becoming a trial lawyer.”
Now that a federal jury convicted Avenatti—and the lawyer still faces two more rafts of criminal charges—his legal career is effectively over, a fact that Avenatti tearfully recognized. Perry noted that Avenatti brought “pain” to his parents and “shame” to his family. She said that two of his teenage daughters wrote letters to the court, which she asked to keep under seal to protect them from public abuse. Avenatti’s public image was also tainted by the release of embarrassing recordings.
During the trial, prosecutors played a tape that they told jurors captured the extortion.
“I’ll go take $10 billion off your client’s market cap,” Avenatti was seen warning attorneys for Nike in the videotape, referring to capitalization.
The judge recited some of the other lowlights, including Avenatti’s question about whether Nike “ever held the balls of the client” in their hands and musing about exposing “a major fucking scandal” and bringing the “power of my platform to bear.”
Referring to those recordings, Perry remarked: “They made my skin crawl.”
“He lost his way, and he knows it,” she added.
“It Was About Deceit”
Characterizing her client’s downfall as landing the wrong way across a “whisper thin” line, Perry questioned why the government did not bring charges against his co-counsel Mark Geragos, another celebrity attorney who was never charged with or accused of wrongdoing. She denied playing a game of “whataboutism,” adding that she made that point to avoid sentencing disparities with a man who will never be tried.
That argument resonated with Judge Gardephe, who called Geragos a “central figure in the criminal conduct” and noted he was an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the complaint and indictment. The judge cited the disparity as a reason to go below the sentencing guidelines.
For the government, Avenatti’s charges about extorting Nike were much more clear-cut than the defense insisted.
“This case wasn’t about hard nosed negotiations. It wasn’t about tough negotiations,” the prosecutor told the court. “It was about deceit. It was about threats. It was about taking from others. It was about abuse of trust.”
The prosecutor also added that Avenatti also harmed his former client Gary Franklin, an amateur basketball coach whom the government characterized as the lawyer’s meal ticket.
“He saw Mr. Franklin as a way to get himself rich,” the prosecutor said.
Avenatti threatened to expose the embarrassing information relating to the corruption scandal unless the Nike paid $15 million—”not to Franklin, but directly to the [Avenatti] himself,” prosecutors noted in a legal filing.
Before Thursday’s hearing, Avenatti tried to secure himself a new trial on a number of grounds, including revelations that his former office manager Judy Regnier—who turned state’s witness—told authorities two weeks before trial that she “felt threatened” by a tweet stating that she might “end up like a Clinton witness.”
“The term ‘Clinton witness’ references a decades-old conspiracy theory, also known as the ‘Clinton Body Count,’ promoted by President Trump and others, that President Clinton and Secretary Clinton arranged to kill individuals with damaging or incriminating information against them,” Avenatti’s lawyer Benjamin Silverman wrote in a footnote of a three-page letter which recapped the witness’s alleged fears.
In his motion, Avenatti argued that the government should have disclosed Regnier’s remarks before trial so that the defense could have undermined her credibility, but Judge Gardephe ultimately found her an “inconsequential witness.”
Continuing to face two separate rafts of charges, Avenatti also faces federal charges in California for a broad array of alleged fraud and tax offenses and the other New York case involving Daniels.
(Photo via Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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