Embattled lawyer Michael Avenatti has been charged with fraud and aggravated identity theft for allegedly snatching a total of $300,000 from Stormy Daniels and spending it on personal expenses like airfare, hotels, and restaurant delivery, and to bankroll his law firm.
Federal prosecutors in New York announced the latest charges against the Newport Beach litigator soon after ABC News reported Avenatti was expected to be charged with additional financial crimes. The 48-year-old lawyer faces a slew of charges on both coasts, including wire fraud, bank fraud, and extortion.
On Wednesday, a grand jury also indicted Avenatti for trying to extort the footwear giant Nike to the tune of $25 million, and the Daniels charges are separate from that case.
“Michael Avenatti abused and violated the core duty of an attorney—the duty to his client,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a statement. “As alleged, he used his position of trust to steal an advance on the client’s book deal. As alleged, he blatantly lied to and stole from his client to maintain his extravagant lifestyle, including to pay for, among other things, a monthly car payment on a Ferrari. Far from zealously representing his client, Avenatti, as alleged, instead engaged in outright deception and theft, victimizing rather than advocating for his client.”
Avenatti denied the latest allegations.
“No monies relating to Ms. Daniels were ever misappropriated or mishandled,” Avenatti tweeted on Wednesday. “She received millions of dollars worth of legal services and we spent huge sums in expenses. She directly paid only $100.00 for all that she received. I look forward to a jury hearing the evidence.”
“At no time was any money misappropriated or mishandled,” he wrote in a subsequent tweet. “I will be fully exonerated once the relevant emails, contracts, text messages, and documents are presented.”
According to the indictment, Avenatti “stole a significant portion” of Daniels’ advance on her book contract by forging her signature on a letter to her literary agent, asking the agent to send payments to a bank account Avenatti controlled.
Once Avenatti received the money, prosecutors allege, he used it to pay employees of his law firm and his defunct coffee company, Global Baristas. Some of the funds owed to Daniels—who is identified as “Victim-1” in the court filing—also went to a luxury car payment and to Avenatti’s dry cleaning.
“When [Daniels] inquired about the status of [her] advance fees, Avenatti repeatedly lied to [her], including by stating that he was working on getting fees from [her] publisher, when, in truth and in fact, Avenatti had already received the fees and spent them on his own personal and professional expenses,” the indictment states.
Prosecutors say Avenatti stole approximately $300,000 from Daniels and has not repaid her half of that money.
On Tuesday, Avenatti told warned the Twitterverse he expected another indictment.
“I expect an indictment to issue from SDNY in the next 48 hrs charging me in connection with my arrest in March. I intend on fighting these bogus/legally baseless allegations, and will plead not guilty to ALL CHARGES. I look forward to the trial where I can begin to clear my name.”
According to the indictment, Avenatti embezzled Daniels’ money by using a “client-trust fund” that he created without her knowledge.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, Avenatti is accused of misusing such bank accounts to steal funds from clients—including beauty vlogger Michelle Phan and a paraplegic client named Geoffrey Johnson—and to hide money from creditors and the bankruptcy court.
Under the terms of her book deal, Daniels was supposed to receive an $800,000 advance, to be paid by a Manhattan publisher in four installments, court papers state. While Avenatti assisted Daniels in negotiations, he allegedly told her he would not accept payment for any work relating to her book, the indictment notes.
Still, prosecutors say Avenatti “engaged in a scheme to defraud” Daniels by embezzling her second and third payments, which totaled about $350,000 before her agent’s cut.
On July 19, 2018, Daniels opened a new bank account to receive the remaining payments under her contract. Ten days later, the actress asked Avenatti if he knew when her second book payment was coming. He allegedly told Daniels “in the next two weeks” because it “comes on acceptance [of the manuscript].”
Then, on July 31, Avenatti allegedly told Daniels’ agent to wire the second payout to an “Avenatti & Associates — Attorney Client Trust” account. When the agent said the payment would not be redirected without Daniels’ permission, Avenatti allegedly emailed the agent a letter that appeared to contain Daniels’ signature.
Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 3, 2018, Avenatti wired about $148,750 to the client-trust account.
According to the indictment, about $57,000 of that money went to the payroll of his former firm, Eagan Avenatti LLP, and $20,000 was spent on insurance, airfare, hotels, car services, restaurants and meal delivery, and online retailers.
Avenatti is also accused of using Daniels’ money to wire $1,900 to a client he represented in a California lawsuit. (While the client isn’t named in the indictment, it appears to be Geoffrey Johnson, who won a $4 million settlement from Los Angeles County over his injuries in a jail. California prosecutors say Avenatti “drained all of the settlement proceeds” owed to Johnson and used it for his personal expenses, but sent Johnson payments of $1,000 to $1,900.”) Meanwhile, $12,800 of Daniels’ money went to Avenatti’s coffee business.
In late August of 2018, Daniels informed Avenatti that she still hadn’t received her second payment and asked for help, unaware that the lawyer had already pocketed the money, prosecutors say. Daniels emailed Avenatti on Sept 4. with her new bank account information for the publisher, the indictment states.
The next day, Avenatti received approximately $250,000 into another account he controlled called the “Michael Avenatti Esq Trust Account,” which at the time had a balance hovering around zero, prosecutors allege.
Avenatti transferred about $148,750 from this account to Daniels, so she “would not be aware that Avenatti had converted and used the proceeds from the second payment for his own personal and business purposes,” the indictment says.
On Sept. 13, Avenatti contacted Daniels’ agent and suggested the publisher make her third book payment early. The publisher agreed to wire an early payment to Avenatti’s client-trust account on Sept. 17, according to the indictment.
Once Avenatti received the money, the lawyer used it “to pay approximately $11,000 to individuals with whom Avenatti had relationships” and $3,900 for a monthly lease on a Ferrari, court papers allege.
Avenatti also allegedly frittered away $15,000 of Daniels funds on airfare, dry cleaning, hotels, restaurants and car services. And about $56,000 went to Eagan Avenatti’s payroll, $12,000 to insurance for Avenatti’s law firm, and $1,900 to another payment to a California client.
On Oct. 1, the day before Daniels’ book hit shelves, she asked whether she’d be paid. The next day, Daniels messaged Avenatti, “Publisher owes me a payment today,” to which he replied: “On it. We need to make sure we have the publicity requirement met.”
From October 2018 to February 2019, Daniels repeatedly asked Avenatti via phone and through electronic messages, for help in receiving her book money, the indictment alleges.
But as he is accused of doing in other cases, Avenatti passed the blame to the party responsible for payment.
While the weeks wore on, Avenatti allegedly told Daniels that it was the publisher who was withholding her money, in part due to sluggish book sales.
“When is the publisher going to cough up my money?” Daniels asked on Dec. 5.
“As for publisher—working them and threatening litigation. They need to pay you the money as you did your part and then some,” Avenatti replied.
On Dec. 27, Daniels told Avenatti she was sending the publisher a certified letter demanding payment and firing her agent. “Then I may post it online for fun,” Daniels quipped.
Avenatti allegedly called Daniels, however, and dissuaded her from delivering the letter and from firing her agent, saying she might need the agent’s help in a lawsuit against the publisher in order to recover her payments.
Sometime in December, prosecutors say, Daniels’ manager sent an email to her publisher and agent, stating she had not received her third payment. As a result, the agent called Avenatti, who allegedly warned the agent not to respond, as he was dealing with Daniels directly on the matter, the indictment states.
Daniels continued to ask Avenatti about the status of money throughout January and February, and he again blamed “poor sales” on the publisher’s supposed reluctance to pay.
In February, Daniels finally spoke to a representative of the publisher, who said Daniels’ money was sent to her agent. According to the court filing, the agent sent Daniels documentation of the false wire instructions, along with proof of her third payment being wired to the Avenatti client-trust account.
The news follows a Vanity Fair profile on Avenatti’s fall from media darling and self-styled presidential candidate to a disgraced lawyer accused of stealing client funds.
Avenatti told the magazine he saw an “opportunity” in Daniels’ case against Trump.
“When I met with Stormy, I saw an avenue by which I could do collateral damage to Donald Trump and those around him for what appeared to me to be illegal conduct and rigging a presidential election,” Avenatti said in the interview. “I saw that as an opportunity to do something that was just, that was right, and to basically go all in.”
In November, Daniels told The Daily Beast that Avenatti had ignored her requests for a financial accounting of her legal fund—and that he launched a second crowdfunding website without telling her.
It’s unclear whether the new charges are related to the fundraising effort.
“For months I’ve asked Michael Avenatti to give me accounting information about the fund my supporters so generously donated to for my safety and legal defense,” Daniels said in a statement in November. “He has repeatedly ignored those requests. Days ago I demanded again, repeatedly, that he tell me how the money was being spent and how much was left. Instead of answering me, without my permission or even my knowledge Michael launched another crowdfunding campaign to raise money on my behalf. I learned about it on Twitter.”
In response, Avenatti denied keeping the accounting from Daniels.
“I have always been an open book with Stormy as to all aspects of her cases and she knows that,” Avenatti said in a statement of his own. “The retention agreement Stormy signed back in February provided that she would pay me $100.00 and that any and all other monies raised via a legal fund would go toward my legal fees and costs. Instead, the vast majority of the money raised has gone toward her security expenses and similar other expenses. The most recent campaign was simply a refresh of the prior campaign, designed to help defray some of Stormy’s expenses.”