Avenatti has referred to himself as Icarus, but that’s a rather romantic self-appraisal. There’s a difference between flying too close to the sun and being a common crook. Last week, after a two-week trial that made hardly a ripple in the press, a jury of his peers found Avenatti guilty of attempted extortion, transmission of interstate communications with intent to extort and honest services wire fraud.
It’s a little ironic that the trial of Michael Avenatti, who not long ago commanded prime-time hits on CNN and MSNBC, was nudged aside by Trump’s own impeachment trial. Adding insult to injury, the once-dapper Avenatti spent much of the past year awaiting trial in solitary confinement, reportedly in the same New York prison cell once occupied by Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo.
On these charges alone, Avenatti could face more than 40 years in prison. He faces additional charges in California for allegedly defrauding clients, and in Manhattan for pocketing about $300,000 intended as part of a book advance for Stormy Daniels, who allegedly had an affair with Trump in 2006.
Not long ago, you could barely turn on the TV without seeing Avenatti’s anger-infused face — in your face. He loved being on the tube, loved the attention, loved everything about himself and his successful manipulation of the all-too-obliging media. He cared as much about media as he did about money, because for him, the two were interchangeable: Media time equaled more clients and hence more billings.
His extortion trial stemmed from an epic plan he confected from a client’s allegations that Nike was paying the families of college-bound basketball stars. The client, former coach Gary Franklin, ran a Los Angeles youth basketball team called the California Supreme when Nike decided not to continue sponsoring the team. Franklin hired Avenatti hoping he could restore the sponsorship deal and reveal evidence that Nike was funneling payments to high school basketball recruits with the intention of having them play for Nike-sponsored teams. Franklin, who was not charged with a crime, alleges that Nike employees told him to pay tens of thousands of dollars to the parents of three recruits and “submit fraudulent invoices to the company for reimbursement.”
Sensing deep pockets and a way out of some personal debts, Avenatti demanded that Nike pay his client $1.5 million. And, without Franklin’s knowledge, he then demanded that Nike hire him for another $15 million to $25 million to conduct an internal investigation of Nike’s practices. If Nike refused, Avenatti threatened to publicize the accusations against the sports apparel company and hold news conferences that would lead to more TV appearances for Avenatti.
The clincher for jurors, who apparently didn’t buy his justice-seeking defense, was likely the recordings of Avenatti hurling demands and threats at Nike representatives.
Without his usual charm, Avenatti in one instance said: “I want to be really f---ing clear. I’m not f---ing around and not playing games. It’s worth more in exposure to me. A few million dollars doesn’t move the needle for me. If that’s what we’re looking at, then we’re done. I’ll go ahead with a news conference. I’ll call the New York Times, who are awaiting my call. I’ll go ahead and take $10 billion off your market cap.”
It turns out that Avenatti was having financial troubles, according to testimony by his former office manager Judy Regnier, and saw the shakedown scheme as a way to “clear the debt,” she said.
Being a con seems to be an addiction where the next con has to be bigger than the last. The thing about grifting is, once you start, it’s hard to stop.
Sadly for cable-TV producers, what would have been Avenatti’s biggest con — a campaign for the presidency, which he briefly threatened to pursue — failed to materialize.
But perhaps that will give him something to plan while he is in jail and off the streets. Cable loves a comeback story.