Fallen celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti saw his third federal trial kick off on Monday, when he faced allegations that he swindled Stormy Daniels, the client who helped make him a household name.
In the lead up to the prosecution of Trump’s ex-fixer Michael Cohen, Avenatti represented Daniels—an adult film actress born Stephanie Clifford—in a discovery battle over what she described as former President Donald Trump’s hush money payments to silence their affair. Daniels fought to terminate the deal, which later sparked Cohen’s prosecution for campaign finance violations and fraud.
Cohen, who arrived in court for Avenatti’s trial, later produced Trump’s checks allegedly reimbursing his hush-money payoffs to Daniels and Karen McDougal to Congress. McDougal also accused Trump of paying her to silence their affair in a so-called “catch-and-kill” scheme by the National Enquirer’s parent company.
“Desperate for Money”
Representing Daniels, Avenatti positioned himself as a David-vs.-Goliath warrior. He became a cable TV fixture and social media star, branding himself with the hashtag #Basta (Italian for “Enough”) and describing his supporters as his fight club “Fight Club.” His meteoric rise fueled rumors of a possible presidential run, but his star fell as quickly as it rose with three federal prosecutions from coast-to-coast.
During his sentencing for conspiring to defraud Nike, Avenatti disavowed the mediums that gave him national fame: “TV and Twitter, your honor, mean nothing.” A separate federal trial in California accusing him of a variety of frauds ended in a mistrial.
As the third trial kicked off on Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Rohrbach told the jury: “This is a case about a lawyer who stole from his client.”
Prosecutors allege that Avenatti, “desperate for money,” swiped two payments from Daniels’s book deal for her memoir: “Full Disclosure,” adding up to almost $300,000 of her $800,000 advance.
Under their contract, Avenatti was not entitled to any part of Daniels’s book deal, except for a percentage “to be agreed upon,” the prosecutor said. But Avenatti said he “wouldn’t take a penny,” telling Daniels that she “earned it,” according to the government.
Anticipating the defense argument, Rohbach said of Daniels: “She’s an entertainer. She’s been in adult films, and she’s been on shows on paranormal activity.”
Before trial, Avenatti’s legal team successfully fought to question Daniels about her beliefs in paranormal activity on the witness stand, where she is expected to testify.
“This case is not about her job, what she does for money,” Rohrbach said. “It’s about the fraud that was committed.”
“A Fee Dispute”
Avenatti’s lawyer Andrew John Dalack characterized the case as little more than a fee dispute that did not belong in federal criminal court.
“What we have in this case, members of the jury, is a disagreement, a fee dispute, between an attorney and his disgruntled client,” Dalack said.
“This case is about Ms. Daniels not wanting to uphold her end of the contract that she signed,” he added later.
Throughout his criminal prosecution, Avenatti has claimed to have been targeted because of his sharp criticism of Trump. He filed a $94 million claim alleging that the Trump administration kept him in brutal conditions inside drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s former jail cell as payback.
The fee award request breaks down to $1 million for every day Avenatti claims he was kept in solitary confinement or under locked-down status.
When asked for something to read, Avenatti claims, he was given only a copy of Trump’s ghostwritten memoir “Art of the Deal.”
Avenatti continued to allege selective prosecution in a pre-trial statement.
“I am completely innocent of these charges,” Avenatti asserted. “The government is spending millions of dollars to prosecute me for a case that should have never been filed. Meanwhile, they coninue to allow Trump and his co-conspirators to walk free and suffer no consequences for their criminal conduct. That is not justice.”
Witness testimony began with Daniels’s literary agent Lucas Janklow.
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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