American lawyer Michael Avenatti has been convicted of swiping nearly $US300,000 from his then-client, adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
American lawyer Michael Avenatti has been convicted of swiping nearly $US300,000 ($AU420,000) in book advance money from his then-client, adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
The now-twice-convicted criminal — and one-time rising star — faces a maximum of 22 years in prison for his conviction on fraud and aggravated identity theft charges.
The jury started deliberating on Wednesday, US time. He’s scheduled to be sentenced on May 24.
After the verdict, Avenatti made a brief statement to reporters outside of the courthouse in lower Manhattan as rain poured down.
“I’m very disappointed in the jury’s verdict. I am looking forward to a full adjudication of all of the issues on appeal,” he said.
His conviction marks another black eye for the already tarnished lawyer, who rose to national fame during the Trump administration as a vocal foe of the then-president while he was representing Daniels.
He even floated running for president against Mr Trump in 2020.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors painted Avenatti, 50, as a calculating thief who stole two book-advance payments from Daniels in 2018 that totalled nearly $US300,000.
The porn star, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, inked a book deal that year with St. Martin’s Press after it was revealed she was paid $US130,000 in hush money before the 2016 presidential election to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Mr Trump.
To pull off his scheme, prosecutors showed, Avenatti forged Daniels’ name on a letter to her literary agent that directed him to transfer two payments meant for the adult entertainer into a bank account he controlled.
Daniels was the government’s star witness at the trial and told jurors that she did not give Avenatti permission to keep the money owed to her through the book contract.
“He stole from me and lied to me,” she said on the witness stand.
Daniels added that Avenatti had promised her he would “never take a penny from me for the book”.
Prosecutors showed jurors documents related to the book deal, as well as a series of text messages between Avenatti and Daniels, which proved how he repeatedly lied to his client about the money.
When she did not receive the payments on time, Daniels asked Avenatti about the missing cash, according to the text messages.
“I did not get paid today. I am not f**king happy,” she said in one of the messages about a month after she was due to receive her second payment in 2018.
“The publisher owes me a payment … This is bulls**t,” she wrote in another.
Instead of coming clean about the theft, Avenatti told her he would “figure out” what happened — even though he had already received and spent the money.
In their closing argument, prosecutors pointed to a “mountain of evidence” against Avenatti, who they argued betrayed the trust of his client.
“The defendant was a lawyer who stole from his own client. She thought he was her advocate, but he betrayed her and he told lies to try to cover it all up,” prosecutor Robert Sobelman said.
“He stole from her. He lied to her over and over and over again,” Sobelman added of Avenatti. “All to steal and spend money that was not his. The defendant is guilty.”
Avenatti, who represented himself at the trial, maintained his innocence and suggested to the jury in his closing argument that Daniels owed him money because of the amount of work he and his law firm did on her behalf.
He also claimed prosecutors’ case against him was full of holes and likened it to a meal that has a “cockroach in the middle of the plate”.
During the trial, Avenatti attempted to undermine Daniels’ credibility by quizzing her about a number of statements she made about him being sexually assaulted in prison and her belief in the paranormal.
“On Sept. 27, 2019 … You stated that I was ‘f**king myself pretty nice and hard and that when I go to prison, there will be a long line of people to ass-rape me,’” Avenatti asked Daniels, who did not deny making the comment.
During the exchange, Daniels confirmed that she previously made statements about her ability to speak with the dead and with a lifeless doll that she refers to as “Susan”.
“She’s not credible,” Avenatti told jurors in his closing argument Wednesday.
In 2020, Avenatti was convicted in the same federal court of trying to shake down sportswear giant Nike for $25 million.
He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in that case.
At his sentencing, he told the judge he betrayed himself and his friends while sparring with the former president and his supporters.
“I lost my way,” he said. “I betrayed my own values, friends, family and myself.”
“I was driven by things that do not matter in life. Television and Twitter mean nothing,” he added.
“I and I alone have destroyed my career, my relationships and my life,” he said.