Michael Avenatti's attorneys say he's being treated like a terrorist for a white-collar crime

Dan Wetzel
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 28: Celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti walks out of a New York court house after pleading not guilty Tuesday in federal court in a case where he is accused of stealing $300,000 from a former client, adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. on May 28, 2019 in New York City. A grand jury has indicted Avenatti for the Daniels-related case and a second case in which prosecutors say he attempted to extort more than $20 million from sportswear giant Nike. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A grand jury indicted Michael Avenatti in a case in which prosecutors say he attempted to extort more than $20 million from sportswear giant Nike. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On the day Donald Trump’s impeachment trial began in Washington, one of his most vocal critics was in solitary confinement in a cold, isolated federal jail cell in New York that may have once housed the Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo.

Michael Avenatti came to national fame as the attorney for Stormy Daniels, the adult film star to whom Trump allegedly paid $130,000 during the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign to keep quiet about an affair (Trump denies the relationship). He later enjoyed a star turn on cable television and social media for criticizing Trump and his policies.

Now he’s deep under the thumb of the United States Justice Department for a bond violation as he prepares for the first of three federal trials scheduled for 2020 that could put him away for decades. The first is set to begin next week in New York for extorting the shoe company Nike. Avenatti has pleaded not guilty to all charges in all cases.

Avenatti’s bond was revoked last week by the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California for financial transactions that made him an “economic danger.” He was detained for three days at a federal facility in Santa Ana, California, before being flown to Lower Manhattan.

Avenatti has not stood trial on any of his charges, let alone been found guilty, yet his present situation would be considered harsh for a convicted murderer. He is charged with financial crimes, not violent ones, yet his attorney says he is being housed with suspected terrorists and stripped of almost all freedoms.

In court filings, Avenatti’s attorneys argue that any incarceration is unnecessary and unfair, but solitary confinement of this nature is particularly aggressive and prevents Avenatti from aiding in his defense in the case.

“[Since last Friday Avenatti] has been housed … on the notorious 10-South of the MCC-New York,” Avenatti’s attorney, Scott Srebnick, wrote to Judge Paul Gardephe. “It is the most secure floor in the entire facility … a floor that houses individuals charged with terrorism offenses ...

“He has been locked down for 24 hours a day, in solitary confinement, except for attorney visits and two medical exams,” the letter continues. “... 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. He has not been permitted to shave.”

Srebnick went on to say that the strict confinement in the same prison that housed Jeffrey Epstein makes preparing for the trial nearly impossible.

“There was no opening in the glass/screen for us to hand Mr. Avenatti documents to review, or for him to make notes on a document …” the letter stated. “Needless to say, Mr. Avenatti wants to have an active role in his own defense. That is simply not feasible.”

MCC-New York warden M. Licon-Vital said in a letter to Judge Gardephe that Avenatti’s confinement was due to his fame and the high-profile nature of the case. “Moving forward, Mr. Avenatti can keep his legal materials in his cell,” Licon-Vital wrote.

Avenatti, 48, is charged in the Southern District of New York with trying to “shake down” Nike by seeking a $20 million-plus payout to keep quiet information about alleged illegal conduct by executives in Nike’s grassroots basketball division. He will also be privy a computer and consistent legal visits.

Avenatti contends he was just representing a former Nike AAU basketball coach turned whistleblower who knew about payments involving the company and top high school basketball talent and their handlers. He says his fee request was not an extortion attempt but an offer to run a legitimate independent investigation of clearly troublesome behavior within Nike’s grassroots basketball.

In 2018, an Adidas executive and consultant were found guilty of fraud in the SDNY for conduct similar to what Avenatti has alleged Nike was engaged in.

Avenatti is also facing additional trials this spring in the SDNY and back in California for allegedly ripping off various clients, including Stormy Daniels, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The feds allege he used the funds to live lavishly. He faces potentially hundreds of years in prison although it’s possible that even if convicted in all three cases he could get a sentence that might end before his natural death.

The Nike trial comes first. While winning any case against federal prosecutors is daunting, trying to do so under these circumstances, stuck alone in the federal hole, may be impossible.

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