Warden: Michael Avenatti kept in his own cell for his safety
NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Avenatti, the jet-setting lawyer who once represented porn star Stormy Daniels in her battles with President Donald Trump, is being housed in isolation at a federal lockup facility for his own safety, the jail warden said Tuesday.
Avenatti is currently being held in the most secure section of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan as he awaits his trial, which is set to start soon, on charges he tried to extort the sports apparel giant Nike.
MCC's warden, M. Licon-Vitale, said the conditions of confinement were set for Avenatti because of his notoriety and his high-profile case when he arrived late Friday.
“Mr. Avenatti's placement is for his own safety,” Licon-Vitale wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge Paul G. Gardephe.
Gardephe had asked prosecutors to explain the conditions of Avenatti's detention after his lawyer complained that he was being held in extreme isolation in in the same chilly cell that once held drug kingpin El Chapo.
“The temperature in his cell feels like it is in the mid-40s. He is forced to sleep with three blankets. Not surprisingly, he has been having great difficulty functioning,” Avenatti's lawyer, Scott Srebnick, wrote in a letter to Gardephe Sunday.
He asked that Avenatti be transferred from the high-security cell at the Manhattan facility to the general population to help him prepare for his upcoming trial.
Avenatti was arrested last week in California after prosecutors there said he violated bail conditions in place since last spring. On Friday, he was flown to New York, where he is scheduled to stand trial soon on charges that he tried to extort up to $25 million from Nike. He has pleaded not guilty.
Avenatti was put in the most secure section of the federal facility under special administrative measures designed to cut off his communications with the outside world, Srebnick said. The special housing unit has held dozens of terrorism defendants over the past quarter century.
M. Licon-Vitale disputed the claim, saying Avenatti was not subject to special administrative measures and is generally subject to the same conditions as other inmates in the unit.
But Srebnick said Avenatti's cell, reportedly once occupied by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, has an officer posted outside it around the clock and two cameras focused on him.
He also complained that Avenatti's social phone calls were severely restricted.
The warden, though, said he spoke with Avenatti on Tuesday and had decided Avenatti can keep legal materials in his cell and have contact legal visits and daily social telephone calls.
Srebnick had complained that lawyers had only been able to communicate with Avenatti through a partition that was part screen and part glass, passing documents back and forth through a jail officer.
“That was untenable,” Srebnick said.
The MCC officers have been “professional, respectful and courteous” throughout, he said, and federal prosecutors have been helpful, asking several times whether there were accommodations that the MCC could provide to improve communications between Avenatti and his lawyers.
“While we understand that there may be hypersensitivity about Mr. Avenatti given the profile of the case, and recent issues at the institution, this situation is truly hampering our ability to prepare for trial,” Srebnick said.
The MCC faced intense scrutiny after Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in his cell there in August as he prepared for trial on sex trafficking charges alleging he sexually abused girls as young as 14 and young women in New York and Florida in the early 2000s.
The trial was originally scheduled to start Wednesday, but it was delayed by U.S. District Judge Paul G. Gardephe after Avenatti's arrest and pushback from his legal team about access to their client. Gardephe set a pretrial conference for Wednesday to determine when the trial might proceed.
Besides the Nike trial, Avenatti also awaits two other trials in May — another in New York on charges that he cheated Daniels in a book deal and one in California on charges that he ripped off clients.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and maintains he was targeted by federal authorities in part because of his public feuds with Trump.
Trump and Avenatti criticized one another on the internet as Avenatti appeared frequently on television while representing Daniels. Daniels has said she had an affair with Trump before he became president, but Trump has denied that.