SANTA ANA, California—In March 2019, after Michael Avenatti’s millions in debt had already made headlines, the embattled celebrity lawyer paid a visit to Geoffrey Johnson, a client he hadn’t seen in a while.
Avenatti was hoping to change the narrative after a judgment-debtor exam—a proceeding where creditors can question debtors under oath about their finances—revealed he allegedly pocketed most of Johnson’s $4 million settlement, which stemmed from a lawsuit after Johnson was injured in a Los Angeles County jail and became paraplegic.
The 50-year-old legal eagle, known for repping Stormy Daniels in her bombshell case against President Trump before amassing a cluster of other newsworthy clients, didn’t mention to Johnson that he’d been accused in a public hearing of stealing the settlement, Johnson testified on Thursday.
Instead, Avenatti asked Johnson to sign a statement endorsing his ethics as a lawyer—accolades that were then posted to the lawyer’s Twitter account—and a document that was essentially a waiver of liability, Johnson said.
“Did you have another attorney look at this document with you?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexander Wyman asked Thursday, which marked the second day of testimony in Avenatti’s embezzlement trial in California. The West Coast proceeding is the second of three trials Avenatti has faced since he was first arrested in the spring of 2019.
It’s the first, however, in which the hard-charging litigator is representing himself.
“No, I did not,” answered Johnson, one of five clients from whom Avenatti allegedly misappropriated funds.
The since-deleted testimonial from Johnson read, in part: “He has always fiercely advocated on my behalf, looked after my needs, communicated with me about all aspects of my case, and made sure I was taken care of. He is an exceptional, honest and ethical attorney, and I feel fortunate to have had him represent me.”
Johnson testified he had no idea that Avenatti had actually settled his case with Los Angeles County for a lump sum of $4 million years before—but with no appreciable windfall for him, the aggrieved party. Avenatti is accused of paying Johnson in small increments, while siphoning most of the settlement and using it to pay his own bills, including those of his shuttered Seattle coffee chain Tully’s.
“Did Avenatti tell you he had just been accused in a court proceeding that day of stealing your settlement funds?” Wyman asked, to which Johnson replied in the negative.
Johnson told jurors he signed what Avenatti handed him because he “trusted” his lawyer.
“I trusted Michael,” Johnson testified. “I trusted him with everything. He helped get me out of jail. He got a settlement for me. I trusted him.”
Despite these disturbing accusations, Avenatti used his cross-examination of Johnson to paint a flattering portrait of how he came to the man’s aid—so much so that at one point, U.S. District Judge James V. Selna advised him to stop asking repetitive questions.
“How did we meet?” Avenatti asked.
Johnson answered they met at a “jail for mentally-ill people” and later testified his family had phoned Avenatti for help.
“Do you recall asking us to do everything we could to get you out of jail?” Avenatti asked, to which Johnson replied, “I just don’t remember.”
“At the time, did you want to get out of jail?” Avenatti continued.
“Why is that?
“Because jail is hell,” Johnson testified.
After Avenatti asked Johnson questions about the lawyer arranging housing for his client at a care center—which he said cost tens of thousands each month—he lobbed another query: “And did you appreciate me and every bit of my time and energy?”
Johnson replied in the affirmative.
In 2011, Johnson had been arrested during a mental-health episode and his family had tried to get him out before his suicide attempt, which led to permanent injuries.
Johnson testified that he informed Avenatti that he wanted to use his settlement to purchase a home accessible to people with disabilities, and even met a realtor to make good on this plan.
But Johnson’s dreams of home ownership were dashed because he was still waiting for his county payout. He testified that Avenatti lied to him about the status of the funds, saying the county was at fault for failing to approve a “special needs trust,” which preserves public benefits eligibility for people with disabilities.
Thursday’s testimony also included accusations that Avenatti failed to pay Johnson’s rent at the care center in which he was living, along with a host of other bills for his father’s hearing aids and for Johnson’s dental work.
Avenatti’s alleged failure to pay the care center resulted in the facility suing Johnson, who testified he was unaware of that lawsuit—and also unaware that Avenatti had settled the case by agreeing Johnson would pay $175,000 for the past-due rent.
Johnson went on to testify that he’d repeatedly asked for a special needs trust so that he could collect his future settlement without losing his Social Security benefits.
For his part, Avenatti questioned Johnson pointedly about the agreement they signed when Johnson hired him as his lawyer. Avenatti asked “where it required me and my firm to pay for your living expenses and medical care” and where it indicated the attorney would help him with his Social Security. “I don’t think there’s anything like that in here,” Johnson testified.
Capping off the early phase of a trial prosecutors are using to paint a picture of a virtue-signaling grifter, Johnson told jurors that when he mentioned he’d spoken to another party about creating the special needs trust, Avenatti was “furious.”
“He said, ‘We have to keep it in the family,’” Johnson testified. “‘I’m your lawyer; you don’t go outside of the firm.’”