Convicted felon and disbarred attorney Michael Avenatti was found guilty of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in federal court in Manhattan on Friday for stealing $300,000 of a book advance from his former client and porn actress Stormy Daniels, who wrote about her brief affair with Donald Trump.
Avenatti, who represented himself in the trial, was found to have forged Daniels’s signature on a fake letter to his former client’s book agent in order to send close to half of the payments for her 2018 memoir to himself. Representing himself in the final days of the trial, he failed to convince jurors that he had not “intended to defraud” or harm Daniels. Prosecutors claimed he spent the money on restaurants, plane tickets, and the monthly lease for his Ferrari, and that he eventually returned about $150,000 to its rightful owner. Though jurors briefly were deadlocked this week, they convicted him of both counts he was facing, for which he could potentially receive up to 22 years in prison.
Avenatti came to national prominence representing Daniels in her lawsuit to dismiss a $130,000 non-disclosure agreement she signed with Donald Trump and his former attorney Michael Cohen. The scandal, which rocked the presidency in 2018, involved an October 2016 payment to Daniels to cover up an alleged affair between the two in 2006. Trump eventually acknowledged that Cohen represented him in the “Stormy Daniels deal,” while his other star lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, admitted on television that Trump reimbursed Cohen for the cash. In this initial media storm, Avenatti became a brash hero of the so-called resistance against the president, clearly reveling in the attention and going so far as publicly mulling a run for president himself.
Michael Cohen was eventually convicted of a campaign finance violation for the payment, and even before Friday’s conviction, Avenatti’s time in the spotlight had ended in permanent damage to his career. Unrelated to the Daniels lawsuit, he was convicted in 2020 of attempted extortion of Nike following his alleged effort to pressure the company to pay him and a client $25 million so he would not disclose bad press about the shoe giant. He did not represent himself and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. (While being detained during the trial, he claims that guards only allowed him to read one book: The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump.) Earlier in 2020, he was arrested by federal agents in the middle of a disbarment hearing in California, and he was also accused of stealing millions from five more clients, a case which ended in a mistrial last year.
As is usual when Avenatti enters a courtroom or speaks at length, there were some fireworks during the trial, in which he represented himself following what he called a “breakdown” in communication with his legal team. During Stormy Daniels’s testimony, Avenatti — who did not testify — grilled his former client about her time as a paranormal investigator. “Do the dead speak back to you?” he asked the plaintiff. “Do they communicate with you?” The answer was yes. The judge, Jesse Furman, said he sustained more objections in this trial than in any other in his career on the Manhattan Federal Court.