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Michael Avenatti, the brash California lawyer who once took on then-president Donald Trump, was sentenced on Thursday to four years in prison for defrauding his best-known former client, the adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
A federal jury in Manhattan convicted Avenatti, 51, in February of wire fraud and aggravated identity after a two-week trial, agreeing that he embezzled nearly $300,000 US in book proceeds intended for Daniels.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman imposed the sentence in federal court in Manhattan.
Avenatti, 51, had already been serving a two and a half year sentence stemming from his 2020 conviction for trying to extort millions of dollars from Nike Inc.
Eighteen months of the Daniels sentence will run concurrent with the Nike sentence, meaning Avenatti faces a combined five years in prison.
Avenatti, who represented himself, proposed a three-year sentence in the Daniels case, with one year running concurrent with his Nike sentence.
“I have destroyed my career, my relationships and my reputation,” Avenatti told Furman before being sentenced in the Daniels case.
He wore beige prison garb and blue sneakers to the sentencing, after Furman rejected his request that he be allowed to wear a suit.
‘Betrayed’ by Avenatti: Daniels
Avenatti became a household name thanks to cable television appearances while representing Daniels in lawsuits against Trump.
Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, received $130,000 US from Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, in exchange for remaining quiet before the 2016 presidential election about sexual encounters she says she had years earlier with Trump.
Avenatti freed Daniels from her nondisclosure agreement with Trump.
“No one else had the guts to take her case,” Avenatti said before Furman handed down his sentence, speaking from the courtroom lectern with a U.S. marshal standing beside him.
“I believed we could take down a sitting U.S. president who was the biggest threat to our democracy in modern times.”
But Avenatti’s career unraveled in 2019 when he was criminally charged in New York in the Nike case, and in California with stealing millions of dollars from five other clients. The California case is ongoing following a mistrial last August.
In this case, his client, Daniels, had signed a book deal that provided an $800,000 payout. Prosecutors said Avenatti illegally pocketed about $300,000 of her advance on Full Disclosure, published in the fall of 2018.
The book’s publication came at a time when Avenatti’s law practice was failing financially even as he appeared regularly on cable television news channels, attacking Trump.
Daniels testified that Avenatti “betrayed” her by diverting money to an account he controlled without telling her. During cross-examination, Avenatti tried to undermine Daniels’s credibility by focusing on her interest in paranormal activity. Daniels, who is producing the TV project Spooky Babes, said she could speak with the dead.
Daniels was not in court for Thursday’s sentencing. Her current lawyer, Clark Brewster, spoke on her behalf, saying Avenatti’s behaviour was “truly shocking.”
Cohen jailed, Enquirer fined, Trump unscathed
Cohen, 52, pleaded guilty in August 2018 to violating campaign finance law by directing payments of $130,000 to Daniels and $150,000 to Playboy model Karen McDougal to avert a scandal shortly before the 2016 presidential election, won by Trump.
Cohen served a three-year prison term for that and other offences and has become a vociferous Trump critic.
Both women have said they had sexual encounters with Trump and the money was meant to buy their silence. Trump has denied the extramarital affairs but has never explained why the payments were therefore necessary.
Trump also initially denied knowledge of the payments, but documents released via court order in 2019 made clear he was aware of the frenetic efforts to keep both women silent in the days ahead of the election.
The National Enquirer — which revealed an extramarital affair of 2008 presidential candidate John Edwards — was aware of the Trump allegations but was convinced by the campaign to bury the story.
The publication last year was fined over $187,000 US by the Federal Election Commission for the so-called “catch and kill” move, which involved a hush-money payout to McDougal.
Trump, believed to be eyeing another run for the presidency, escaped any censure from the FEC.
“All the other actors have been held accountable, but still no accountability for former president Trump,” the government watchdog group Common Cause — which had filed a complaint against AMI, the publisher of the National Enquirer — said in a statement last year.