By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Michael Avenatti shot to fame from obscurity two years ago by taking to the airwaves as an outspoken, self-described nemesis of Donald Trump while representing adult film actress Stormy Daniels in lawsuits against the U.S. president.
Now the 48-year-old celebrity lawyer faces an uncertain future, as he goes on trial on Monday on charges he tried to extort up to $25 million from Nike Inc <NKE.N> and defrauded a basketball coach he represented.
Avenatti says he is innocent and has tried to paint Nike as the real offender, describing the case against him as retribution for his attacks on Trump.
Nike has denied Avenatti’s claims of corruption, and prosecutors want to block him from politicizing the trial.
That is also the hope of U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe, who has excluded evidence he fears will distract jurors.
“Nothing would please me more” than to keep references to Trump and Daniels out of the trial, Gardephe said at a Jan. 22 hearing, while acknowledging their names would come up.
Lawyers are for the most part “not the most sympathetic defendants,” said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a law professor at Ohio’s University of Dayton and jury consultant.
For Avenatti, he added, “you just have to find one juror who views you as a fighter, who can stick it to the establishment or simply really doesn’t like the president.”
HIS OWN WORDS
Prosecutors said Avenatti threatened to publicize accusations that Nike made improper payments to families of college basketball recruits, unless it paid him and another lawyer $15 million to $25 million to conduct an internal probe.
Avenatti allegedly made the threat on behalf of his client Gary Franklin, a coach in a Nike-sponsored youth basketball league, and demanded Nike pay him $1.5 million.
According to prosecutors, Avenatti also defrauded Franklin by concealing a settlement offer from Nike.
Prosecutors hope Avenatti’s own words, including some secretly recorded during negotiation sessions with Nike, will establish extortion.
Franklin, who Avenatti’s lawyers have said hired their client after seeing him represent Daniels, is expected to testify.
Daniels received hush money before the 2016 presidential election so she would not reveal her alleged sexual encounter with Trump, who denies it happened.
Avenatti faces two other criminal trials this year, one in Manhattan and one in southern California.
His fame worked against him when he was thrown into solitary confinement at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, following his Jan. 14 arrest for allegedly violating bail in the California case.
Jail officials have said his safety might be jeopardized if he were housed with other inmates.
It is unclear whether Avenatti will testify in his defense.
Silence would mark a departure for him.
While representing Daniels, Avenatti launched a media blitz to discuss his cases and criticize Trump, making hundreds of television appearances.
He has said his tactics helped the government win a guilty plea from Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen for campaign finance violations.
Avenatti flirted with running for the White House in 2020, as a Democrat. Trump is a Republican.
Even if he is acquitted in the Nike case, Avenatti’s legal problems are far from over.
Avenatti faces an April trial in Manhattan for allegedly defrauding Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, out of book contract proceeds.
And he faces a May trial in California on charges including stealing millions of dollars from several clients and lying to the Internal Revenue Service.
Avenatti has pleaded not guilty.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Daniel Wallis)