A federal prosecutor told a jury on Wednesday that the fraud trial has exposed fallen celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti’s “web of lies,” theft, and betrayal of his most famous client: adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
“The defendant was a lawyer who stole from his own client. She thought that he was her own advocate, but he betrayed her,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Sobelman said on Wednesday, echoing the remarks his fellow prosecutor made during opening statements on Jan. 24.
Sobelman told the jury that the “defendant’s lies and betrayal were exposed” now that the evidence is in.
Avenatti first rose to national prominence representing Daniels in her litigation against Donald Trump attempting to invalidate a non-disclosure agreement that she signed to keep her from discussing her alleged affair with Trump well before he was president. The high-stakes litigation made both the lawyer and his client household names, social media stars, and frequently booked guests on the TV and cable news airwaves.
Describing how dramatically they have fallen into loggerheads, Avenatti told a jury: “Some of you may admire Ms. Daniels.”
“I was her advocate,” he said during summations. “I was her champion. The evidence shows that I put it all on the line for Ms. Daniels because I believed in her, and I waned to help her. I too admired her, perhaps more than anyone else in her life.”
With help from Avenatti, Daniels found an agent (Janklow & Nesbit Associates) and publisher (St. Martin’s Press) to fulfill her decade-long dream to write a memoir, which she titled “Full Disclosure.” Daniels testified that Avenatti swiped nearly $300,000 of the $800,000 advance on that book, telling the jury “he stole from me and lied to me.”
Dozens of text messages spread out over the course of several months show Daniels demanding her payments, after bank records show the publisher already sent the money to Avenatti’s accounts and he spent it.
“He lied to Ms. Daniels for months to cover it up,” Sobelman said.
One of those lies, in Sobelman’s phrasing, was the “let-me-check lie.”
It is named after the exact phrasing Avenatti used when Daniels asked him about her book payment in November 2018, months after it was sent to Avenatti.
Other times, Avenatti told Daniels that he would threaten litigation to obtain her advance payment. There was never any discussion of a lawsuit because Avenatti already had received and spent it, the prosecutor said.
On Feb. 19, 2019, after several months of exchanges like these, Daniels sent Avenatti screenshots of banking transfers of the literary agent showing the payments were sent.
On the witness stand, Daniels called it her “mic drop” moment.
She told the jury that she wanted that to send the message: “I’m tired of your lies. Just stop. Come clean.”
Prosecutors also say that Avenatti forged Daniels’s signature in a letter to her agent as part of the crime.
“That Is Ludicrous”
Early in the trial, Avenatti dumped his legal team and decided to represent himself, and he delivered summations in his own defense once the prosecution’s closing arguments conclude.
“Let me be clear: Michael Avenatti never committed the crime of wire fraud,” Michael Avenatti told the jury. “Michael Avenatti never committed the crime of aggravated identity theft.”
“There is insufficient evidence to show that Michael Avenatti ever intended to harm Stormy Daniels,” Michael Avenatti added later.
Despite once claiming he was “strongly leaning” toward taking the stand, Avenatti ultimately did not testify in his defense or call any witnesses. Subjecting himself to cross-examination would have been a risky move for Avenatti, opening the door for prosecutors to question him about his alleged misconduct.
That litigation strategy meant that Avenatti would be barred from attempt to testify on the sly—without grilling by prosecutors—by way of closing arguments. Avenatti attempted to start his summations by talking about his father selling hot dogs in a ballpark. Right before his remarks concluded, Avenatti let the jury know that he is Italian and enjoys Italian food.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, who has been presiding over the trial, sustained the prosecution’s objection to both bits of autobiography.
After that early objection, Avenatti’s summations began in earnest. He argued throughout the trial that his contract with Daniels stated that he would be “entitled to a reasonable percentage to be agreed upon” between the two of them.
“According to the government, Michael Avenatti could never have believed that he had the right to be paid,” Avenatti said. “That is ludicrous, and it is not supported by the evidence.”
The contract also called for him to collect standard hourly fees and out-of-pocket costs “if a legal defense fund is established to benefit Clients and has sufficient funds to pay such fees and costs.”
Pointing to the contract, Avenatti said: “Ladies and gentlemen, this was my money. This was the firm’s money. This wasn’t Ms. Daniels’s money.”
Throughout the trial, Avenatti attacked his former client’s belief in the paranormal, which is the focus of her never-aired TV series “Spooky Babes.” Daniels has been open about her belief that she is a medium and believes that she speaks to the dead. She testified about a walking and talking doll named “Susan,” which has its own Instagram page. She acknowledged that she believed her house had human characteristics and referred to it as “she.”
During rebuttal summations, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Podolsky shot back: “Ask yourself: What does any of that have to do with anything, anything?”
“She can believe whatever she wants and still be stolen from by the defendant and still deserve not to be,” he added.
Last July, Avenatti was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for conspiring to extort Nike. He wound up serving only a portion of that sentence behind bars because of the coronavirus pandemic. He could face up to 22 years imprisonment if convicted of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in the Daniels case, though he would likely face a far lighter sentence. He also faces the prospect of more from a separate trial in California, where his first attempt at prosecution ended in a mistrial.
Following the government’s rebuttal summation, Judge Furman instructed the jury before it began its deliberations around 2:49 p.m. Eastern Time.
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