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Michael Avenatti Trial Begins, Unearthing Artifacts of the Trump Era

For much of 2018, the California-based lawyer Michael Avenatti and his client Stephanie Clifford — better known as the pornographic film actress …

Michael Avenatti Trial Begins, Unearthing Artifacts of the Trump Era
24.01.2022 19:40

For much of 2018, the California-based lawyer Michael Avenatti and his client Stephanie Clifford — better known as the pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels — were key figures in the fervent political opposition to then-President Donald J. Trump.

They became stars of what came to be known as “the resistance” — and were seen by some as potential agents of Mr. Trump’s undoing. For a time, the brash Mr. Avenatti even flirted with a run to replace Mr. Trump.

But the partnership between the actress and the lawyer crumbled long before the 2020 election. And even as he was championing Ms. Clifford in public, Mr. Avenatti was secretly stealing from her, according to federal prosecutors in Manhattan.

In 2019, already facing unrelated fraud charges, he was indicted on charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Prosecutors said that after helping Ms. Clifford secure a book contract, Mr. Avenatti impersonated his client in a letter and got her literary agent to send him nearly $300,000 in publisher’s payments meant for her.

On Monday, long after Mr. Avenatti fell from fame to infamy and nearly two years after he was convicted of trying to extort millions from Nike, he faced another trial — this time accused of taking advantage of the client who helped make him, however briefly, a household name.

Ms. Clifford is widely expected to appear as a government witness, and in a letter to the court last month, Mr. Avenatti’s lawyers wrote “there is a strong likelihood” that he will testify in his own defense.

That would subject him to cross-examination by a prosecutor, a risk few criminal defendants are willing to take. But Mr. Avenatti has a history of professional gambles, most of them underpinned by uncommon confidence in his own abilities.

The partnership between Mr. Avenatti and Ms. Clifford crumbled before the 2020 election.Credit…Yana Paskova/Getty Images North America

Early in his career, Mr. Avenatti left behind a job at a white-shoe defense firm based in Los Angeles and joined a smaller firm that had a record of winning big settlements — but also took on the sort of cases that could yield little return after years of expensive work.

Eventually Mr. Avenatti founded his own firm. He was known mainly in California, with a reputation as a dogged advocate for his clients and a history of sometimes fighting with his colleagues.

Early in 2018, Mr. Avenatti filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles on behalf of Ms. Clifford, who said that she had had a sexual relationship with Mr. Trump more than a decade earlier and had received a $130,000 payment shortly before the 2016 presidential election to keep quiet about it.

The lawsuit asserted that a nondisclosure agreement that accompanied the payment was invalid because Mr. Trump had not signed it.

Mr. Avenatti and Ms. Clifford drew wide attention, and were hailed by some as a courageous, if unlikely, pair — a plucky porn star and a pit-bull lawyer who were not afraid to challenge a sitting president. They appeared together on television often, and Mr. Avenatti built a sizable Twitter following, antagonizing the president on his preferred platform.

Mr. Avenatti accused the president and his lawyer of trying to intimidate, threaten and silence Ms. Clifford and defended her honor, saying on “60 Minutes” that he believed that “there’s no question that when the American people take all of the facts and evidence into consideration, that they are going to conclude that this woman is telling the truth.”

And Ms. Clifford praised Mr. Avenatti and his style of litigation, with its frequent television appearances and colorful, combative pronouncements.

“Every time I watch him work, I think, this is what it must have been like to see the Sistine Chapel being painted,” Ms. Clifford said in an interview with The New York Times Magazine. “But instead of paint, Michael uses the tears of his enemies.”

Ms. Clifford and Mr. Avenatti joined forces to battle Mr. Trump in 2018.Credit…Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Only weeks after those remarks appeared in print, Mr. Avenatti was taking steps to bamboozle Ms. Clifford and her literary agent, according to prosecutors.

The Trump Investigations

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Numerous inquiries. Since former President Donald Trump left office, there have been many investigations and inquiries into his businesses and personal affairs. Here’s a list of those ongoing:

Investigation into criminal fraud. The Manhattan district attorney’s office and the New York attorney general’s office are investigating whether Mr. Trump or his family business, the Trump Organization, engaged in criminal fraud by intentionally submitting false property values to potential lenders.

Investigation into tax evasion. As part of their investigation, in July 2021, the Manhattan district attorney’s office charged the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer with orchestrating a 15-year scheme to evade taxes. A trial in that case is scheduled for summer 2022.

Investigation into election interference. The Atlanta district attorney is conducting a criminal investigation of election interference in Georgia by Mr. Trump and his allies.

Investigation into the Trump National Golf Club. Prosecutors in the district attorney’s office in Westchester County, N.Y., appear to be focused at least in part on whether the Trump Organization misled local officials about the property’s value to reduce its taxes.

Civil investigation into Trump Organization. The New York attorney general, Letitia James, is seeking to question Mr. Trump under oath in a civil fraud investigation of his business practices.

In the spring of 2018, prosecutors said, Ms. Clifford entered into a contract with a publisher to write a book, with an $800,000 advance to be paid in four installments.

A few months later, according to an indictment, Mr. Avenatti sent a literary agent working with Ms. Clifford a letter purporting to be from her and directed future payments to a new bank account. Ms. Clifford was not aware of that account, which Mr. Avenatti controlled, the indictment said.

Soon, the agent sent $297,500 — Ms. Clifford’s share of her second and third payments from the publisher minus her agency’s portion — to Mr. Avenatti’s account, the indictment said, adding that Mr. Avenatti used that money to pay his law firm’s employees; cover airfare, restaurant, hotel and dry-cleaning bills; and to make a monthly lease payment of about $3,900 for a Ferrari.

When Ms. Clifford did not receive the expected payments, she turned to Mr. Avenatti, asking for his help in obtaining money from the publisher, according to the indictment.

Although Mr. Avenatti ended up transferring an amount equal to the second installment to her, the third installment came to his account, prosecutors have said. Ms. Clifford did not receive any of that money, according to the indictment.

And, the indictment added, Mr. Avenatti responded with falsehoods when Ms. Clifford continued to seek his help. Finally, early in 2019, Ms. Clifford communicated with a representative of the publisher and received from her agent a copy of the phony letter that Mr. Avenatti is accused of sending. Three months later he was indicted.

By that time Mr. Avenatti had also been arrested on charges of trying to extort more than $20 million from Nike in exchange for evidence he said he had of company employees’ misconduct in the recruitment of college basketball players. He was convicted in that case and sentenced last summer to two and a half years in prison.

A month later he was granted a mistrial in another federal case in which he was accused of stealing millions of dollars from five clients and lying about his business and income. A judge ruled that prosecutors had withheld from the defense what Mr. Avenatti considered to be exculpatory financial data that investigators had collected.

Mr. Avenatti’s defense in the fraud and identity theft case could lean heavily on claims that he had a “right to proceeds” from Ms. Clifford’s book deal, as one of his recent court filings said.

That filing also suggested that Mr. Avenatti might question the veracity of his former client, whom he once publicly lauded as a truth-teller.

“The defense does intend to make arguments at trial concerning Ms. Clifford’s written contract with Mr. Avenatti,” defense lawyers wrote. “This bears directly on the credibility of Ms. Clifford’s accusations.”


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