A New York federal judge sentenced a tearful Michael Avenatti to two and a half years in prison Thursday for trying to extort big sums of cash from athletic brand Nike. The disgraced Newport Beach-based lawyer and former Trump antagonist was given a September report date as he heads back to California for another criminal trial next week in Orange County.
“I and I alone have destroyed my career, my relationships, my life and there is no doubt that I deserve to pay, have paid and will pay a further price for what I have done,” Avenatti told U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe in a two-hour, in-person sentencing that was streamed on a public phone line. “TV and Twitter, your honor, mean nothing. 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 honor, are willing to take your calls from prison.”
Avenatti faced 108 to 135 months in prison under sentencing guidelines, but Gardephe imposed a lesser sentence, citing Avenatti’s stint in “horrific” jail conditions, including solitary confinement, and that prominent lawyer Mark Geragos was also involved in the Nike scheme but was never charged. Gardephe called Geragos a “central figure in the criminal conduct.”
But Avenatti’s lawyers had asked for six months in prison, and Gardephe made it clear Avenatti’s “outrageous” conduct deserved a lengthier sentence.
“He hijacked his client’s claims, and he used those claims to further his own agenda,” Gardephe said.
“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 honor, are willing to take your calls from prison.” —Michael Avenatti
Avenatti was arrested March 25, 2019, for his involvement in what New York prosecutors described as a $25 million shakedown attempt against Nike. The case was brought in the midst of a major investigation in California into wide-ranging financial crimes, including stealing money from clients and defrauding bankruptcy court. Authorities here had to rush out search warrants and an early charging document when New York authorities informed them of Avenatti’s looming arrest. They later unveiled a 36-count grand jury indictment.
In the Nike case, Avenatti threatened to hold a press conference announcing the company illegally paid players if he wasn’t paid millions of dollars, including for an internal investigation he would conduct. Nike’s lawyers recorded their meeting with Avenatti, and Gardephe on Thursday recited some of Avenatti’s most damning comments from that meeting, including: “Have you ever held the balls of your client in your hands … This is going to be a major fucking scandal.”
Gardephe acknowledged the stakes of the upcoming trial in Orange County, calling it “very serious.” Indeed, Avenatti could face an additional decade in prison if convicted in that case. He also has a pending trial in a New York case alleging he stole book deal money from the former client who propelled him to fame, porn star Stormy Daniels.
In his comments to the judge on Monday, Avenatti recounted his childhood dream of becoming a lawyer, and he wept as he recounted his downfall.
“Other kids dreamed about becoming athletes…but I dreamed about becoming a lawyer, about becoming a trial lawyer, about doing good and about pursuing and achieving justice, fighting for the little guy against the Goliaths,” Avenatti said. “For years, I did just that. But then I lost my way. I betrayed my own values, my friends, my family, and myself. I betrayed my profession. I became driven by the things that don’t matter in life.”
Avenatti told the judge he’s grateful for his family’s support, but that he hopes his children are ashamed of him “because if they’re ashamed, it means their moral compass is exactly where it should be.”
Avenatti is to report to prison on September 15. At his lawyer’s request, the court will recommend he be placed in the federal facility in Sheridan, Oregon, which is the closest medium-security prison to Southern California.
Jury selection in his Orange County trial is scheduled to begin July 13, with opening statements set for July 20.
Meghann M. Cuniff is a journalist in Southern California. She’s on Twitter @meghanncuniff.
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