Deliberations in Michael Avenatti’s federal extortion trial began late Wednesday morning after more than an hour of jury instructions.
The deliberations began a day after prosecutors said in closing arguments that Avenatti saw the youth basketball coach who approached him for help last year as a “meal ticket.”
“Avenatti wants millions,” prosecutor Matthew Podolsky said. “This isn’t about justice. This is about getting millions for Michael Avenatti.”
Avenatti — who rose to fame after representing Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit against President Donald Trump — is on trial for allegedly threatening to publicly accuse Nike employees of improper and illegal conduct unless the athletics giant paid him up to $25 million. He’s facing four charges, including extortion and conspiracy to commit fraud.
He was hired by Gary Franklin, who was the coach of youth basketball team California Supreme. Franklin testified last week that he was bullied by Nike executives who forced him to make illicit payments to top high school basketball players and their families. In 2018, the company ended its sponsorship of the team, he said.
Prosecutors say Avenatti — who they claim was in “crushing debt” at the time — wanted to use Franklin’s case to make money.
Franklin said he wanted his team back and two Nike executives fired, but prosecutors say Avenatti had not asked for that, but payments for himself that he hadn’t told Franklin about.
Before the start of deliberations, the defense moved for a motion of acquittal based on the government’s closing argument, but that was denied by the judge.
‘He saw dollar signs’
Nike lawyers who took the stand during the trial said Avenatti told them he would hold a press conference claiming the company illegally paid players. In exchange for not going public, Avenatti told the lawyers in one meeting Nike would have to pay Franklin $1.5 million for any claims he had and immediately pay Avenatti and another attorney $12 million and guarantee $15 to $25 million in payments for an internal investigation, prosecutors said.
Benjamin Homes, an associate for Nike’s outside law firm who took notes during one of the meetings with Avenatti, testified earlier that it “evolved into really a shakedown.”
“Avenatti said ‘pay me $22.5 million’ and he would ride off into the sunset,” Assistant US Attorney Daniel Richenthal said Tuesday. “He literally said he will ride off into the sunset.”
“Avenatti didn’t see Gary Franklin, he saw dollar signs,” he said.
But the defense, which claims Franklin and his friend Jeffrey Auerbach have changed their stories since they first hired the attorney, says the two men knew Avenatti’s tactics.
Auerbach, who testified earlier in the trial, had researched a jury verdict Avenatti won that totaled more than $400 million, defense attorney Scott Srebnick said in closing arguments.
“Now why would you be looking at jury verdicts if you didn’t expect litigation,” Srebnick asked. The two men, he said, had also shared videos of Avenatti holding a press conference and appearing on CNN.
“That’s what Michael Avenatti does,” Srebnick said, adding the two men had allegedly told the attorney “do it your way” after hiring him.
Avenatti’s attorneys have denied any criminal acts and have said the coach hired “Avenatti to be Avenatti.”
Avenatti was on a mission, defense says
The defense, citing previous testimony and text messages between Auerbach and Franklin, said the two men were after “justice.”
They had looked up firms that had “successfully sued Nike” and said it was time to “go after Nike,” defense attorney Scott Srebnick said in closing arguments.
“That’s not diplomacy,” Srebnick said. “That’s looking for a law firm to sue.”
Franklin had said he wanted to root out corruption, defense attorneys Scott Srebnick and his brother, Howard, said.
“The only way to root out corruption, the only way to dismiss employees for corruption is an internal investigation,” Howard Srebnick argued. “He (Avenatti) was on a mission for his client. He was on a mission to achieve the goals of his client, and again he would be paid along the way.”
But the sum of money and an investigation were not what Franklin was after, prosecutors have said.
Franklin testified he wanted to expose two Nike executives to their superiors and get some restitution for some of what he lost but didn’t want to make anything public. He didn’t want to hurt Nike, the children or their parents, he testified, and told Avenatti that the most important thing was to get his team back.
He testified he was shocked to find out Avenatti was planning a press conference.
“This is not how I wanted to have things handled,” Franklin said in court. “I felt like he totally betrayed my trust.”
When he was asked by Avenatti’s attorneys earlier in the trial whether he wanted to pay for the costs of an investigation to get the employees fired, Franklin said he didn’t know it would take an investigation to get them fired.
“The defendant had his own agenda,” Podolsky said Tuesday. “Avenatti was not working for Franklin when he was asking to get paid. We know that for a simple reason, because he didn’t talk to him about that.”
During cross-examination last week, Franklin said Avenatti had outlined his demands to him during a March meeting and told him he was going to seek whistleblower protection, $1 million for Franklin and have two executives fired.
“He was concealing facts from Gary with whom he spoke,” Richenthal said. “It was criminal. It was wrong.”
Jury instructions will start Wednesday at 9:30 a.m before deliberations begin.