A U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles says lawyer Michael Avenatti, a critic of President Donald Trump, could face up to 50 years in prison if convicted on wire and bank fraud charges. (March 25)
NEW YORK – Federal prosecutors in two states revealed criminal charges Monday against Michael Avenatti, accusing the lawyer who battled President Donald Trump over a payoff to a porn star of scheming to extort up to $25 million from shoemaker Nike, embezzling money and defrauding a bank.
Avenatti was arrested Monday afternoon in New York outside the office of one of Nike’s lawyers.
In the Nike case, federal prosecutors in New York charged Avenatti with four counts of extortion and conspiracy for allegedly threatening to reveal what he claimed was evidence that Nike made improper payments to high school basketball players unless the company paid $1.5 million to one of his clients and $15 million to $25 million for him and an associate to conduct an investigation of Nike.
“Avenatti’s conduct had nothing to do with valid advocacy on behalf of a client or any other kind of legitimate legal work. Instead, Avenatti used illegal and extortionate threats for the purpose of obtaining payments for himself,” said Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. “A suit and a tie doesn’t mask what at its core was an old-fashioned shakedown.”
Prosecutors described the effort, which played out largely over the past week, as a “multimillion-dollar extortion scheme.” The investigation is continuing, and prosecutors said they have not decided whether to charge Avenatti’s associate, who two people familiar with the matter said is Mark Geragos, a celebrity lawyer who represented “Empire” star Jussie Smollett. The people were not authorized to speak publicly.
Minutes before he was arrested, Avenatti posted on Twitter that he was about to disclose a “major high school/college basketball scandal.”
Berman said the tweet “was designed for an audience of one. It was Michael Avenatti’s shot across Nike’s bow.”
Nike issued a statement Monday that said the company has cooperated with the government’s NCAA investigation for more than a year and immediately reported Avenatti to prosecutors. The FBI investigation into a corruption scheme involving men’s college basketball led to charges against Adidas representatives and others in the fall of 2017.
“Nike will not be extorted or hide information that is relevant to a government investigation,” the company said.
Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles separately revealed Monday that they charged Avenatti with embezzling a client’s money and defrauding a bank by using a fake tax return to obtain loans, a scheme they said had been going on for considerably longer.
Avenatti is charged with embezzling more than $1 million from an unnamed client that he used to pay his own expenses and debts, as well as those of his coffee business and law firm, according to the 197-page complaint. He is accused of defrauding a bank by using phony tax returns to obtain millions of dollars in loans.
Prosecutors outlined an elaborate scheme in which Avenatti sought three loans from a Mississippi bank in 2014 by allegedly inflating his income by $5.2 million and falsely reporting that he paid $2.8 million in federal taxes to the IRS during the two preceding years. At the time he declared the tax payments to the bank, prosecutors asserted, Avenatti had made no tax payments for those years and owed the IRS about $850,000.
Avenatti is the Los Angeles lawyer who represented pornographic actress Stormy Daniels in a lawsuit over what she said was a bid by Trump during his presidential campaign to prevent her from speaking about having sex with him. Federal prosecutors in New York determined that the payment had been an illegal contribution from Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, to the president’s campaign, creating one of a handful of criminal investigations centered around Trump and his associates.
As his profile rose, Avenatti publicly flirted with the idea of running for president.
Avenatti, wearing a blue suit, was arraigned Monday evening in federal court in New York. He was released on a $300,000 appearance bond after he surrendered two passports. He must appear in federal court in Los Angeles on April 1 to be arraigned again on the charges he faces there.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, said she terminated Avenatti’s services more than a month ago after he dealt with her “extremely dishonestly.”
Prosecutors echoed that contention in the charges they filed in Los Angeles. They alleged that Avenatti negotiated a $1.6 million settlement for an unnamed client, then provided the client a fake settlement agreement that said the money would not come until later, then used it to pay expenses for his coffee business, Global Baristas US, which operated Tully’s Coffee stores in California and Washington state, as well as for his own expenses.
Avenatti allegedly defrauded a bank in Mississippi by supplying it false tax returns to obtain three loans totaling $4.1 million for his law firm and coffee business in 2014.
“A lawyer has a basic duty not to steal from his client,” Los Angeles U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said. “Mr. Avenatti is facing serious criminal charges alleging he misappropriated client trust funds for his personal use and he defrauded a bank by submitting phony tax returns in order to obtain millions of dollars in loans.”
IRS special agent Ryan Korner characterized Avenatti’s alleged actions as “elaborate schemes that have no purpose other than to mislead others and defraud both their clients and federally insured financial institutions.”
“The criminal complaint unsealed today shows a pattern of selfish behavior that paints Mr. Avenatti as a lawyer who only represents his own self-interests,” Korner said.
If convicted on the charges in Los Angeles, Avenatti could face up to 50 years in federal prison, though few defendants receive the maximum punishment. He faces the threat of an additional 47 years in the New York case.
Avenatti did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After Avenetti’s court appearance on the New York charges, he will be brought to a federal court in Santa Ana to face the California charges.
In the Nike case, prosecutors charged that Avenatti said he represented an unnamed Amateur Athletic Union basketball coach who had evidence the shoemaker made payments to families of several high-school basketball players, according to the court documents. Prosecutors declined to say whether the coach cooperated with investigators.
Avenatti allegedly threatened to reveal that information publicly, which he said would hurt Nike’s market value. The threat came before a Nike quarterly earnings call March 21, according to the documents.
“You guys know enough know now to know you’ve got a serious problem. And it’s worth more in exposure to me to just blow the lid on this thing,” Avenatti told Nike, according to a transcript in the court records of the profanity-laced call March 20. “A few million dollars doesn’t move the needle for me.”
Avenatti had scheduled a meeting with Nike’s lawyers Monday to give them a final opportunity to meet his demands, prosecutors said. He was arrested outside the lawyer’s office.
Jansen and Johnson reported from Washington. Contributing: A.J. Perez and Aamer Madhani
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