Michael Avenatti, the brash lawyer who shot to fame representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in lawsuits against Donald Trump before a swirl of criminal charges ended his legal career, was sentenced to 2-1/2 years in prison on Thursday for trying to extort Nike.
US District Judge Paul Gardephe in Manhattan said Avenatti, 50, “had become drunk on the power of his platform” in betraying his client, a youth basketball coach, for his own gain.
“Mr. Avenatti’s conduct was outrageous,” Gardephe said. “He hijacked his client’s claims, and he used those claims to further his own agenda, which was to extort millions of dollars from Nike for himself.”
The sentencing caps a precipitous downfall for a once-obscure lawyer who in 2018 became a cable news fixture, disparaging then-President Trump and even flirting with a White House run himself.
Those political aspirations evaporated when prosecutors in California and New York charged Avenatti with fraud in March 2019. California prosecutors said he was enjoying a $200,000-a-month lifestyle while cheating clients out of millions of dollars and failing to pay hundreds of thousands to the Internal Revenue Service.
Charges alleging he cheated Daniels out of proceeds from a book deal followed weeks later. Avenatti pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Recordings showed Avenatti telling Nike lawyers he would “blow the lid” on the sportswear company and wipe $10bn off its market value unless it bowed to his demands.
Prosecutors said Avenatti was counting on a big payday to cover his own debts. Nike has denied wrongdoing.
Avenatti was also convicted of defrauding the coach, Gary Franklin, by not telling him he would not settle unless there were a probe.
Franklin had been upset Nike stopped sponsoring his programme, and said he wanted simply to restore their relationship. He said Avenatti had “destroyed my reputation” in his community.
Before being sentenced, Avenatti lost his composure as he admitted to having “lost his way”, and apologised to Franklin and others.
“TV and Twitter, your honour, mean nothing,” Avenatti told the judge. “Everyone wants to ride in a limo with you, but very few are willing to sit next to you on the bus. Even fewer, your honour, are willing to take your calls from prison.
“I and I alone have destroyed my career, my relationships, my life,” he added.
Prosecutors requested a “very substantial” sentence, citing the US Probation Department’s recommendation of an eight-year prison term. Avenatti’s lawyers said six months in prison and a year of home detention was enough punishment.
In a victim-impact statement, Nike’s lawyers said Avenatti did considerable harm to the company by falsely trying to link it to a scandal in which bribes were paid to the families of NBA-bound college basketball players to steer them to powerhouse programmes. An employee of Adidas, a Nike competitor, was convicted in that prosecution.
The lawyers said Avenatti threatened to do billions of dollars of damage to Nike and then falsely tweeted that criminal conduct at Nike reached the “highest levels”.
In their pre-sentence submission, Avenatti’s lawyers said their client had suffered enough, citing enormous public shame and a difficult stint in jail last year that ended after lawyers said he was particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.