Disgraced attorney Michael Avenatti was sentenced to four years in prison for stealing nearly $300,000 from his former client, adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
District Judge Jesse Furman said Avenatti’s conduct was “so brazen and egregious” adding, he “took advantage of a vulnerable victim given her unorthodox career and somewhat unorthodox beliefs.”
Avenatti was convicted in February of one count of wire fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. He faced as much as 20 years on the wire fraud charge and a mandatory two-year sentence for aggravated identity theft.
Avenatti is currently serving a 30-month prison sentence for attempting to extort over $20 million from Nike by threatening to go public with damaging information unless they paid him. He goes on trial next month in California on charges alleging that he embezzled $10 million in settlement funds from at least five clients. He has also been charged with tax fraud and bankruptcy fraud and pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Part of Thursday’s sentence will be served alongside the Nike sentence, but Furman said Avenatti will have to serve an additional two and a half years after he completes the Nike sentence.
Avenatti was also ordered to pay $148,750 to Daniels and $297,900 to the US.
Furman told Avenatti: “I hope you put your formidable talents to better use.”
Avenatti, wearing a beige prison outfit, his ankles shackled, became emotional when he addressed the judge.
“I have destroyed my career, my relationships and my reputation and have done collateral damage to my family and my life,” he said while fighting back tears. Avenatti argued that for most of his career he had fought for the underdog.
“There is no doubt I made a series of mistakes and exercised poor judgment,” Avenatti said.
Furman said it is a “tragic, sad … sorry case” noting that Avenatti “is quite smart and has formidable legal skills. What changed? I don’t know the answer to that question.”
He said at some point Avenatti’s “healthy ambition” turned into “blind ambition.” The judge said Avenatti’s apology letter to Daniels was “too little, too late.”
Downfall of prominent attorney
The legal turmoil is a dramatic turn for Avenatti, who rose to fame representing Daniels as she went public with allegations that she received a $130,000 payment just before the 2016 presidential election to silence her allegations of an affair with then-candidate Donald Trump. Trump has denied the affair.
On the heels of the publicity over the hush-money scandal, Avenatti helped Daniels ink a $800,000 book deal. Prosecutors said Avenatti stole nearly $300,000 of the advance by fabricating a letter purportedly from Daniels redirecting payments from the book publisher to an account under Avenatti’s control.
At trial, Avenatti represented himself and fired his court-appointed attorneys mid-trial. Prosecutors called 10 witnesses including Daniels, who testified that Avenatti lied to her and betrayed her. Avenatti attacked Daniels’ credibility during cross-examination by questioning her about her belief in the paranormal and he suggested that he was entitled to take a portion of her book advance for work he had done even though it was not in their written contract. Avenatti did not testify or call any witnesses in his defense.
Last month, Avenatti wrote an apology letter to Daniels, which he provided to the judge, in which he says, “It is obvious that I failed you in many respects and that I disappointed you and let you down in multiple ways.” He added, “I wish that we could turn back the clock so that the mistakes I made would never be repeated. I am truly sorry.”
Clark Brewster, an attorney for Daniels, said after the sentencing, “Mistakes and misjudgment, this is far from that. This was a deceitful scheme of lies and defaming her much different than a mistake. It wasn’t a mistake. It was calculated dishonesty.”
He said Daniels is “happy that he was held accountable.”
“When we spoke the last couple of days although she’s angry about what she did she feels sorry for his plight and his family and I do too. I think she’ll be happy with the resolution. Whatever Judge Furman would have done would have been acceptable to Stormy. She’s a giving, loving person and forgiving as well,” Brewster said.
Robert Baum, Avenatti’s attorney, said Avenatti is “distraught” about his inability to practice law. He said when Avenatti completes the total five-year sentence, including the sentence from Nike and the Daniels case, he hopes “he will be able to have a significant impact on the community.”
Avenatti hugged Baum in court, waved to a row of supporters and said, “Thank you” before the US Marshals led him out of the courtroom.
Avenatti was transferred from FCI Terminal Island in California, where he is serving the Nike sentence, to the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York for Thursday’s sentencing. He will be transported back to California for his trial next month.