The Slatest

Celebrity Lawyer Michael Avenatti Sentenced to Prison for Nike Extortion

Avenatti points as he speaks into microphones outside of a New York courthouse.
Celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti outside of a New York courthouse in 2019. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In a blink, Michael Avenatti was everywhere. One year into the Trump presidency, the lawyer representing former porn star Stormy Daniels established himself as a #resistance staple, sitting next to Anderson Cooper each evening, offering a rebuke of the new president that at the time felt like it just might imperil the Trump presidency. The charisma-fueled hype reached such heights that the now 50-year-old lawyer mused that he might just run for president himself. That was three years, two impeachments, and many, many Trump microscandals ago. Soon, controversy started to bubble around the newly appointed star lawyer and, in a Scaramuccian blink, Avenatti was gone. On Thursday, the Arc of Avenatti was completed, as a federal judge sentenced him to two-and-a-half years in prison after being convicted by a jury for trying to extort Nike for more than $20 million.

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Characters like Avenatti were only possible in Trump Times, where the normal poles of conduct, expertise, and access had been scrambled so mightily that the grifter class’s ears instinctively perked up. The first rush was to the Trump camp, names like Manafort, Stone, Papadopoulos, and Flynn, but the other side wasn’t immune to the void left in the new tabloid conversation that had subsumed American politics in the Trump era. Avenatti, perhaps more than anyone outside Trumpworld, fit the Trump-era life cycle as outcast turned star turned criminal. Accusations that he was embezzling money from Stormy Daniels soon crept into view; there were accusations of domestic violence, and then dozens of charges of grand schemes of fraud, bilking millions out of everyone around him from a paraplegic man to the ex-girlfriend of an NBA player.

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Thursday’s jail term is the culmination of Avenatti’s bizarre, ultimately illegal shift of focus from nipping at a president to the murky world of elite amateur basketball. In March 2019, Avenatti informed Nike he represented a coach of team that had previously been sponsored by Nike that had evidence the company was making secret payments to top high school basketball prospects. It was an explosive accusation at a time when the college and high school basketball world had already been turned upside down by a federal sting outing coaches and shoe companies as plying prospects with cash.

Avenatti’s rising star power had attracted a new type of celebrity-targeting client as the lawyer had turned his newly minted platform on targets other than Trump. With a sticking-up-for-the-little-guy affect, Avenatti threatened to take on Nike, alleging he held in his hands evidence of damning allegations against the global behemoth. Instead of taking the legally permissible path of taking on Nike in court or securing a settlement for his client, Avenatti instead orchestrated what amounted to a shakedown, demanding $1.5 million for his client and $15 million to $25 million for himself to conduct an “internal investigation” into the company. The demand for personal payment is what ultimately sunk Avenatti legally and, in March 2019, Avenatti was arrested after a recording of a meeting at the offices of the legal team representing Nike was handed over to federal prosecutors. The case went to trial and a jury, in February, found Avenatti guilty on three counts of extortion, transmission of interstate communications with intent to extort, and wire fraud.

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Avenatti told the court he had always wanted to fight for the little guy and “for years, I did just that,” he said. “But I lost my way.” “Mr. Avenatti had become drunk on the power of his platform,” Judge Paul Gardephe said in a Manhattan federal courtroom during sentencing Thursday. That would be a fitting end to the Avenatti story, if he were not so thoroughly embroiled in other legal disputes. “Thursday’s sentencing caps just one of Mr. Avenatti’s legal battles,” the Wall Street Journal notes. “He also faces a litany of tax and bank charges in California with a trial set to begin next week in federal court in Santa Ana, Calif. A trial in New York is scheduled to start next year on federal charges that he embezzled money from Ms. Daniels.”

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