Disgraced attorney Michael Avenatti was convicted Friday of stealing from the client that helped him flirt with fame.
He was found guilty of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft after he surreptitiously diverted $300,000 that rightfully belonged to Stormy Daniels, the pornographic performer who hired Avenatti to represent her in litigation against former President Trump.
Avenatti had pleaded not guilty and argued the evidence against him was insufficient but the jury sided with federal prosecutors who said Avenatti convinced Daniels her book publisher was late with payments owed to her for her memoir, “Full Disclosure,” when he already had the money in an account he controlled. He will be sentenced on May 24.
“The defendant was a lawyer who stole from his own client. She thought he was her advocate, but he betrayed her,” assistant U.S. attorney Robert Sobelman said. “He told lies to cover it all up, lies he told to try to get away with it.”
The jury deliberated over three days and twice, before rendering a verdict, indicated it was having trouble. A few hours after deliberations began, the jury sent a note saying, “We are unable to come to a consensus on Count One. What are our next steps?"
A subsequent note indicated a single juror “is refusing to look at evidence and is acting on a feeling.” In both instances the judge ordered the jury to keep trying.
Avenatti, who represented himself during the trial, argued he was entitled to a portion of Daniels’ book advance even though she paid him an agreed-upon retainer of $100.
“Ms. Daniels was about to embark on a fight against the president of the United States, the most powerful person on the planet. And the evidence shows that I agreed to take on that fight for Ms. Daniels. But I didn't agree to do it for free,” Avenatti said.
At one point during trial Avenatti cross-examined his former client about her belief in the paranormal in an attempt to attack her credibility.
“She claims to have the ability to talk to the dead. She claims to have a doll who talks, plays the piano, and calls her mommy,” Avenatti said. “Does this sound like someone the government should be using as their star witness in a criminal case?”
The remark during closing statements drew a sustained objection and a response during the government’s rebuttal.
“I don't know what you all believe, whether you think it's kooky to believe in the paranormal, whether you believe it's weird, whether you have beliefs in the paranormal. No idea. What matters here has nothing to do with that. It has nothing to do with that at all. She can believe whatever she wants and still be stolen from, from the defendant, and still deserves not to be,” assistant U.S. attorney Matthew Podolsky said.
Daniels became a household name after she received $130,000 in hush money from Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. She said the payment was meant to keep her quiet about an alleged affair she said she had with Trump, who has denied it.
Daniels' attorney Clark Brewster released a statement following the jury's verdict, saying, “Stormy is relieved this nightmare is over. The text communications between Stormy and Mr. Avenatti in real time was overwhelming proof of his deceit and embezzlement. The forgery of her name and his concealed directive to wire the money to him was irrefutable. Still, Mr. Avenatti possessed the uncanny ability to steadfastly deny the crimes and persuade others he was entitled to the embezzled funds. Stormy is pleased that the justice system worked.”
Avenatti’s conviction is his second in recent months. He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for extorting Nike and he faces a retrial in California on charges that he cheated clients other than Daniels.