NEW YORK – A tearful, repentant Michael Avenatti, the brash lawyer who once represented Stormy Daniels in lawsuits against President Donald Trump, was sentenced Thursday to 2 1/2 years in prison for trying to extort up to $25 million from Nike by threatening the company with bad publicity.
Avenatti, 50, rose to prominence by sparring publicly with Trump, but criminal fraud charges on two coasts disrupted his rapid ascent. He was convicted last year of attempted extortion and other charges in connection with his representation of a Los Angeles youth basketball league organizer who was upset that Nike had ended its league sponsorship.
U.S. District Judge Paul G. Gardephe called Avenatti’s conduct “outrageous,” saying he “hijacked his client’s claims” and "used those claims to further his own agenda, which was to extort millions of dollars from Nike for himself.”
Avenatti, the judge added, "had become drunk on the power of his platform, or what he perceived the power of his platform to be. He had become someone who operated as if the laws and the rules that applied to everyone else didn’t apply to him.”
Before the judge spoke, Avenatti delivered emotional remarks, sometimes choking up and speaking through tears. “I and I alone have destroyed my career, my relationships and my life,” he said.
“Your honor, I’ve learned that all the fame, notoriety and money in the world is meaningless. TV and Twitter, your honor, mean nothing,” he said.
He ended his statement by saying he expects his three children, including two teenage daughters who wrote letters to the judge, to be ashamed of him.
“Because if they are ashamed, it means their moral compass is exactly where it should be,” he said.
As he left the courthouse in the rain, he stopped briefly before a set of microphones while his lawyer, Danya Perry, told reporters, “A new Michael Avenatti is deeply humbled as a result of this experience.”
The judge agreed, noting that Avenatti had not shown contrition or accepted responsibility for his crimes until Thursday, when he expressed “what I believe to be sincere remorse.”
Gardephe said some leniency was deserved because prosecutors declined to charge Mark Geragos, a prominent attorney who played a critical role in the scheme. Geragos first reached out to a Nike contact and remained silent at meetings and on phone calls as he and Avenatti shared a “good cop, bad cop routine.”
The Associated Press sent an email seeking comment to Geragos.
The judge also said conditions were "terrible” at the Manhattan federal lockup where Avenatti spent 100 days behind bars last year, mostly in solitary confinement. He said it was hard to believe such conditions would occur in the U.S.
Avenatti's legal woes are far from over. He also faces the start of a fraud trial next week in the Los Angeles area, a second California criminal trial later this year and a separate trial next year in Manhattan, where he is charged with cheating Daniels out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Avenatti represented Daniels in 2018 in lawsuits against Trump, appearing often on cable news programs to disparage the Republican president. Daniels said a tryst with Trump a decade earlier resulted in her being paid $130,000 by Trump’s personal lawyer in 2016 to stay silent. Trump denied the affair.
Avenatti even explored running against Trump in 2020, boasting that he would “have no problem raising money.”
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 and maintained he was a victim of politically motivated attacks.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Podolsky told Gardephe that Avenatti deserved “substantial imprisonment” because he used his client “as a way to get himself rich.” Defense lawyers sought a six-month prison term followed by a year of home detention.
Perry told the judge that recordings of Avenatti's profanity-laced threats to Nike lawyers made her "skin crawl,” but she said she also felt mean-spirited backlash from people who expressed hated toward her client.
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 programs. 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.”
Avenatti's former client, Gary Franklin Sr., said in a statement submitted by prosecutors that Avenatti's action had “devastated me financially, professionally and emotionally.”
Franklin and representatives of Nike attended the sentencing. An attorney for Franklin released a statement saying that his client was grateful to the court for "honoring the very painful experience he went through at the hands of Michael Avenatti.”