Michael Avenatti was sentenced Thursday to four years in prison for stealing book proceeds from Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who catapulted him to fame as he represented her in courtrooms and cable news programs during her legal battles with then-President Donald Trump.
The California lawyer, currently incarcerated, learned his fate in Manhattan federal court, where Judge Jesse M. Furman said the sentence will mean that Avenatti will spend another 2 1/2 years in prison on top of the 2 1/2 years he is already serving after another fraud conviction.
The judge said Avenatti’s crime against Daniels was made “out of desperation” when his law firm was struggling. He called Avenatti’s behavior “craven and egregious” and blamed it on “blind ambition.” He also required Avenatti to pay $148,000 in restitution and forfeit the roughly $297,000 that prosecutors say he stole from Daniels.
The judge said he believed the sentence “will send a message to lawyers” that, if they go astray, they will lose their profession and their liberty.
Avenatti wearing a drab beige prison uniform, choked up several times as he delivered a lengthy statement before the sentence was announced, saying he had “disappointed scores of people and failed in a cataclysmic way.”
“I have destroyed my career, my relationships and my reputation and have done collateral damage to my family and my life,” he said. “There is serious doubt as to how or if I will ever recover any semblance of a normal life.”
Avenatti, 51, said he chose to represent Daniels beginning in February 2018 because she was an underdog and no one else would.
“Nobody could have predicted the success we would have and the notoriety that would follow,” he said.
After the sentencing, Avenatti, shackled at the feet, hugged his lawyers and then shuffled out of court.
At trial earlier this year, Avenatti represented himself, cross-examining his former client for hours about their experiences in early 2018, when she signed a book deal that provided an $800,000 payout. Prosecutors said he illegally pocketed about $300,000 of her advance on “Full Disclosure,” published in fall 2018.
The book’s publication came at a time when Avenatti’s law practice was failing financially even as he appeared regularly on cable television news channels, attacking Trump. Avenatti represented Daniels in lawsuits meant to free her from a $130,000 hush payment she received shortly before the 2016 presidential election to remain silent about a tryst she said she had with Trump a decade earlier. Trump denied it.
Daniels was not in court. Her current attorney, Clark Brewster, spoke on her behalf, saying it was “truly shocking” that Avenatti tried to portray himself as a champion of his clients during his statement.
In a statement after the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said Avenatti violated the duty of lawyers to be loyal advocates for their clients when he “stole his client’s identity and her money in order to line his own pockets.”
His conviction for aggravated identity theft required a mandatory two-year prison sentence. He was also convicted of wire fraud. He’s already serving a 2 1/2-year sentence for trying to extort Nike. Avenatti was convicted in 2020 of threatening to ruin the shoemaker’s reputation if it did not pay him up to $25 million.
And he faces a retrial in California on charges that he cheated clients and others of millions of dollars there.
In a presentence submission, Avenatti’s lawyers cited an apology letter Avenatti recently wrote to Daniels in which he said: “I am truly sorry.”
But prosecutors in a sentencing submission last week urged that that he should face “substantial” additional time in prison for a wire fraud conviction and criticized his apology letter, saying Avenatti failed to apologize for his actual crime.
And they recalled that during “an extremely lengthy” cross-examination, he “berated his victim for lewd language and being a difficult client, questioned her invasively about marital and familial difficulties, and sought to cast her as crazy, much as he did during the course of his fraud to prevent her own agent and publisher from responding to her pleas for help.”
“The defendant certainly had every right to defend himself at trial. But he is not entitled to a benefit for showing remorse, having done so only when convenient and only after seeking to humiliate his victim at a public trial, and denigrating and insulting her for months to her agent and publisher while holding himself out as taking up her cause against the powerful who might have taken advantage of her,” prosecutors wrote.
On Thursday, the judge agreed that the apology letter was “too little, too late,” and said its intentions remained unclear.