Michael Avenatti, the larger-than-life attorney who fell from grace nearly as quickly as he rose to national prominence for representing adult film actress Stormy Daniels in her suit against former President Donald Trump, was sentenced Monday to 14 years in federal prison for stealing millions of dollars from his clients.
He was also ordered to pay more than $7 million to his four victims, one of whom is a paraplegic man. Avenatti, 51, pleaded guilty six months ago to four counts of wire fraud and one count of endeavoring to obstruct the administration of the Internal Revenue Code.
In relation to the latter charge, Avenatti was ordered Monday to fork over an additional $3.2 million to the federal government. The amount matches the sum prosecutors accused him of stealing in federal payroll taxes, collected from the employees of his now-defunct Seattle coffee chain but never passed along to the IRS, a fraud that prosecutors called “massive.”
In a statement following the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada shot down the “David versus Goliath” narrative Avenatti was fond of invoking in cable news appearances prior to his downfall. “Michael Avenatti was a corrupt lawyer who claimed he was fighting for the little guy,” Estrada said.
“In fact, he only cared about his own selfish interests.”
In his sentencing remarks Monday, U.S. District Judge James V. Selna said that though Avenatti had done “good things in his life,” he had “also done great evil,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Avenatti, dressed in beige prison attire and sneakers, offered apologies to his four victims, three of whom were watching him in court on Monday. “I am deeply remorseful and contrite,” he said. “There is no doubt that all of them deserve much better, and I hope that someday they will accept my apologies and find it in their heart to forgive me.”
He added later: “I am not an evil or vile man.”
One of his defrauded clients, Geoffrey Ernest Johnson, had addressed the court earlier that day. Johnson was paralyzed after attempting suicide in jail, and hired Avenatti to help him sue Los Angeles County over his injuries. On Monday, Johnson called Avenatti’s subsequent machinations “the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Though Johnson won a settlement of $4 million from the county in 2015, he barely saw a penny of it, according to federal prosecutors. Avenatti, who told him the settlement was ensnared in bureaucratic red tape, had secretly spirited it away, depositing the funds into his own personal accounts.
“I trusted Michael with all my heart,” Johnson said on Monday. Struggling to testify through tears, Johnson went on to explain, “After realizing what Michael has done for me, I’m not sure I can ever trust anyone again.”
Avenatti stared down at his folded hands as his former client spoke, according to a reporter for Law & Crime.
Avenatti will begin his sentence once he completes a five-year sentence he’s serving in a Southern California prison over his convictions in two other cases.
Before March 2019, when federal agents jumped the 51-year-old in New York City, arresting him on charges of attempting to extort Nike out of up to $25 million, Avenatti’s star had been on the rise. Always a bombastic character, he grew from the roguish plaintiff’s attorney who once helped a college kid sue PepsiCo over a Harrier Jet to a race-car-driving, martini-drinking, Tom-Ford-suit-wearing champion of the left who at one point mulled a run for presidential office.
Then came the arrest. Less than a year later, Avenatti was sentenced to 30 months behind bars. This past February, he was further convicted of charges that he stole nearly $300,000 that belonged to Daniels for her book, Full Disclosure. After a jury found him guilty of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, he was sentenced to what functioned as an additional 48 months in prison.
The staggering 36-count indictment that led to Monday’s hearing was first unveiled by federal prosecutors a week after the Nike indictment was issued. Avenetti protested his innocence at the time, saying “any claim that any monies due clients were mishandled is bogus nonsense.”
His guilty plea this summer was not part of a plea agreement with prosecutors, leaving on the table two counts of bank fraud, four counts of bankruptcy fraud, one count of aggravated identity theft, six wire-fraud charges and 18 tax-related charges. All outstanding 31 charges were dismissed after Monday’s sentenced was passed down, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The 14-year sentence is slightly less than the term of 17 years and six months that prosecutors requested. Avenatti’s deception was both “cruel” and “callous,” they wrote in a memo to Selna, and “was motivated solely by arrogance and greed.” He faced a statutory maximum of 83 years in prison, according to CNN.
The brash 51-year-old, who represented himself in court (despite no longer being allowed to practice law in California), asked Selna to give him with no more than six years, to run concurrently with his earlier sentence.
“Your honor, at no point in time did I set out to bilk my clients,” he said.