Federal Prosecutors Seek Just Under 18 Years for Michael Avenatti

Former liberal hope and disgraced lawyer Avenatti asked for just six years, citing repentance demonstrated through apology letters

Once something of an unlikely liberal resistance hero, disgraced attorney Michael Avenatti continues his legal free-fall as federal prosecutors seek to send him away for 17 years and six months in federal prison wire and tax fraud. Avenatti’s team, meanwhile, is arguing for six years, hinging their request for leniency on the repentance they say Avenatti’s demonstrated, as well as the highly prejudicial treatment he feels he has been subjected to since his legal woes began.  

Avenatti made an “open plea” to resolve most of the charges against him in Santa Ana, a rare move for defendants given that they will have no idea what punishment they may face. U.S. District Judge James Selna is scheduled to sentence Avenatti on Nov. 7.

As reported live by Meghann Cuniff, Selna denied a post-filing permission request from Avenatti’s team to go over the 50-page limit on court memos Selna put in place. Avenatti has until Friday to submit a new brief under the 50 page limit.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, argued their 17.5-year recommendation should be tacked on to the five years he is serving for convictions in an extortion scheme against Nike and for stealing book royalties from another client, adult film actress Stormy Daniels, in New York. Avenatti argued that the six years he is recommending should run concurrent with the punishment he is already serving for the New York cases.

Avenatti, who won a mistrial motion last year when Selna found prosecutors withheld evidence the attorney was seeking to use in his trial, said he made the open plea in part to spare the five victims from another trial, to the court system money, and because he could not reach an agreement on a plea deal with prosecutors.

In the sentencing recommendation, federal prosecutors said Avenatti’s schemes followed a “general pattern” in which he “would lie about the true terms of the settlement agreement he had negotiated for the client, conceal the settlement payments that the counterparty had made, secretly take and spend the settlement proceeds that belonged to the client, and lull the client into not complaining or investigating further by providing small `advances’ on the supposedly yet-to-be-paid funds.”

Earlier this year, Avenatti’s former—and perhaps most renowned—client, Daniels, testified against Avenatti, addressing prosecutors’ claims that Avenatti stole nearly $300,000 of her $800,000 publisher’s advance for her autobiography Full Disclosure. As CNN reported of Daniels’ testimony, “He lied to me and betrayed me and broke my trust. And I thought he was my friend.” 

In a letter Avenatti sent to Daniels in May, filed with the court, Avenatti wrote, “I made myself available to you 24/7 and felt that I was always there for you. I made personal sacrifices in my support for you. But along the way, I know that I failed.” 

In addition to Avenatti’s crimes against Daniels, prosecutors also said he was a “tax cheat,” and cited his failure to pay payroll taxes after his firm acquired Tully’s Coffee in bankruptcy and then obstructed the IRS when the agency attempted to collect the amount due. In total, prosecutors argue Avenatti stole $12.35 million from his clients, failed to pay about $3.2 million in payroll taxes from the coffee company, and $1.6 million in payroll taxes from his law firm.

Additionally, despite Avenatti having written his various apology letters to victims and pleading guilty, prosecutors contend that he still has not taken responsibility for his crimes in any tangible, specific way. While Avenatti cites his apology letters—and relinquished any rights he had to a private jet he purchased with money he stole from clients as a show of accountability for his crimes—prosecutors dispute any real remorse, pointing out that Avenatti contests the restitution he owes. 

The prosecutors further argued that his convictions in New York federal court should also boost his punishment while probation officials recommended a stiffer sentence than the one offered by prosecutors.

Avenatti countered that the recommended punishment from probation officials is “dramatically and punitively higher” than other fraud and tax cases. Avenatti also argued that his jailing in New York City while awaiting trial in “horrendous conditions” should lead to a lesser sentence.

Citing the solitary confinement has believes he received as punishment for being a prominent critic of former President Donald Trump, Avenatti told Los Angeles in December that his section in Manhattan’s infamous Metropolitan Correctional Center “10 South” consisted of “six cells designed to hold the most dangerous individuals on the planet and is widely considered worse than Guantanamo Bay. It was built in response to 9/11 and the UN has described the conditions as torture. And they are.” He learned his neighbors in solitary included three suspected terrorists. 

In contrast, Avenatti’s sentencing brief describes him as a “loyal, loving, supportive” father of two teenage daughters and an 8-year-old-son, supplemented by a series of family photos. The brief also details Avenatti’s difficult childhood. A letter included in the brief from friend Jay Manheimer, notes that Avenatti “could not count on his parents for financial or social stability.” This upbringing apparently led to Avenatti’s work ethic and helped make him the man his brief describes as “a passionate, aggressive, and successful litigator who stook up for the proverbial little guy.” 

Said to have started working at McDonald’s and retail stores when he was 15, the brief goes on to detail Avenatti working full time to pay for his college education, among the first in his family to earn advanced degrees. A graduate of George Washington University Law School, Avenatti moved to California and passed the bar on his first try, settling in Newport Beach in 2000.

Of his time in custody at Terminal Island, the sentencing brief points to Avenatti’s “spotless disciplinary record, has been a model inmate, and currently has a security classification of minimum.” He was also admitted into a treatment program and is active in Alcoholics  Anonymous, simultaneously taking courses to “prepare him for a life after prison” as the suspended attorney gets ready to surrender his law license. Avenatti also said he received multiple boxes of thank-you cards and letters from former clients but that they were destroyed by the government, preventing him from using them to make a case for a lesser sentence.

Avenatti had no prior criminal history before his convictions in New York. He argues that not combining the two cases in New York has left him facing the prospect of a past criminal history that would boost his exposure in the Santa Ana case, and that federal prosecutors forced him to defend three cases on both coasts when they could have combined them. Though the government insists there was no way to combine the cases, Avenatti’s team says the decision was all about his notoriety coupled with “an internal ‘turf’ battle within the Department of Justice.”

Avenatti quoted former Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman’s book on his efforts to work out the so-called turf battle with former Central District of California U.S. Attorney Nichola Hanna.

Avenatti said the federal prosecutors were “more concerned over who would benefit from a high-profile prosecution of the defendant.”

City News Service contributed to this report.

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