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Michael Avenatti convicted of defrauding Stormy Daniels

Former attorney Michael Avenatti, representing himself, presents his closing arguments during his criminal trial at the United States Courthouse in the Manhattan borough of New York City on Feb. 2, 2022. (Jane Rosenberg/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Michael Avenatti, an attorney who rose to national prominence representing adult film actress Stormy Daniels as she took on Donald Trump, was convicted on Friday of charges related to taking $300,000 from Daniels by siphoning payments of her book-deal advance.

Avenatti was found guilty on counts of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in U.S. District Court in Manhattan after about two days of deliberations. He faces up to 22 years in prison and will be sentenced May 24. Avenatti was allowed to remain free to surrender himself to federal authorities in California, where he has a pending federal embezzlement case. He was previously on home confinement there.

“I am very disappointed in the jury’s verdict. I am looking forward to a full adjudication of all of the issues on appeal,” a defiant Avenatti said outside the courtroom, flanked by a team of federal public defenders who were initially set to try his case but who served as his advisers after he decided to represent himself.

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At trial, prosecutors argued that Avenatti stole from Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, by faking her signature on a form that rerouted wire transfers from the promised $800,000 advance from her memoir “Full Disclosure” to an account he controlled. He then spent months brushing off her questions about the missing installments — leading her to believe the publishing company was failing to pay her.

At the time, Avenatti was representing Daniels as she tried to undo a nondisclosure agreement she signed through Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, in which she accepted $130,000 in exchange for silence about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump in 2008. The hush money was paid by Cohen during the 2016 presidential campaign, and Cohen later pleaded guilty to campaign finance fraud in connection to it. Avenatti and Daniels went on a publicity tour in which they spoke out against Trump for allegedly pressuring her into silence.

Friday’s guilty verdict came hours after the frustrated jury sent a note to U.S. District Court Judge Jesse Furman saying one of its members was “refusing to look at evidence … and does not understand the job of a juror.” Furman reminded the panel that a jury is required to base its verdict on trial evidence. The next time a note was sent at around 2:30 p.m. it was to indicate a verdict had been reached.

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In an interview with Inside Edition that will air Friday evening, Daniels said she was “very happy the jury made the right decision.”

“They looked at the facts, they put their personal feelings about who I am and what I do aside,” she added.

Avenatti “did just the opposite” of performing a lawyer’s duty to a client in his representation of Daniels and “instead used his law degree as a license to steal,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement.

Avenatti argued he was entitled to the money from the book advance. His claims were contradicted, however, by an extensive WhatsApp message history with Daniels that included repeated assurances that he was working hard to get the publisher to satisfy the terms of her contract. As he was offering daily excuses to Daniels, he was concealing that he’d taken payments for himself.

“What he cannot explain is why he didn’t just tell Ms. Daniels: ‘I’ve got your money,' ” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Podolsky said in a summation rebuttal on Wednesday afternoon.

A vague clause in the retainer agreement Daniels signed with Avenatti said he could be entitled to any media or book-related profits she made. Avenatti relied on that clause to suggest Daniels was lying about not agreeing to give book payments to him. Daniels testified that Avenatti never asked her about taking a cut of book profits.

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The trial was at times a spectacle.

In his summation, Avenatti launched into personal anecdotes that were interrupted by objections from the prosecution, which Furman granted.

“When my father was a teenager he sold hot dogs at a ballpark — ” Avenatti began before the prosecutor, then the judge, cut him off.

As he was nearing the end of his remarks, he launched into another strange string of thoughts that began: “I’m Italian. I like Italian food.”

“Ladies and gentleman, the case that the government is attempting to feed you has a giant cockroach in the middle of the plate!” Avenatti went on. “Would you eat that or would you send it back?”

Daniels’s testimony over the course of two days also had its strange moments, including when Avenatti, in an apparent bid to tarnish her credibility, grilled his former client on her belief in the supernatural.

The trial was Avenatti’s third federal criminal case in two years. He was previously convicted in New York of defrauding a different client, and charges are still pending in California in a case in which he’s accused of stealing funds from his law firm.

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