In a still-plummeting fall from grace for Michael Avenatti, U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe on Wednesday sentenced the 50-year-old celebrity attorney to two-and-a-half years in prison. Last year, a Manhattan federal jury convicted Avenatti of attempting to extort Nike for up to $25 million, and of depriving AAU coach Gary Franklin of a right to Avenatti’s honest services.
Attorneys for Avenatti pleaded their client should only be sentenced to six months in prison. They sought leniency, insisting, among other points, that Nike was never actually harmed by Avenatti’s behavior, that Avenatti’s misconduct was nonviolent, and that Avenatti had already suffered by being held in solitary confinement for 24 hours a day at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, the same facility that housed drug cartel king Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and other extremely dangerous inmates.
Judge Gardephe wasn’t persuaded. He blasted Avenatti for “hijack[ing] his client’s claims” and using “those claims to further his own agenda, which was to extort millions of dollars from Nike for himself.” The U.S. Probation Department had recommended an eight-year sentence.
Avenatti’s misconduct stems from his representation of Franklin, whom Nike had let go. Franklin retained Avenatti after developing worries about his possible legal exposure from seeing bribes of top recruits to attend particular colleges. Avenatti demanded Nike pay Franklin $1.5 million. That wasn’t a problem; attorneys are accorded wide latitude in making demands on behalf of clients.
The problem was Avenatti also demanding Nike either pay him and a co-counsel as much as $25 million to investigate company activities related to recruits, or pay the two $22.5 million outright.
Avenatti’s attempt to shake down Nike led him to threaten leaks to media about New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson, who played at Nike-sponsored Duke, and Boston Celtics guard Romeo Langford, who played at Adidas-sponsored Indiana. Avenatti warned he could reveal texts and bank records that showed Nike officials, just like their counterparts at Adidas, had bribed recruits (Nike forcefully denies this allegation). In perhaps his most audacious threat, Avenatti pledged to damage Nike’s stock price by holding a press conference during March Madness where he would implicate the sneaker company in various wrongdoing.
Before his sentence was issued, Avenatti attempted to take responsibility by professing to Judge Gardephe that he and he “alone” has “destroyed” his career and relationships.
Avenatti’s rise to prominence occurred when he became an outspoken critic of former President Donald Trump as well as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh when he was a nominee to the Court. Avenatti used social media, especially Twitter, to blast Trump. Some speculated Avenatti might even run for president in 2020.
Perhaps mindful of that activity, Judge Gardephe added that Avenatti “had become drunk on the power of his platform, or what he perceived the power of his platform to be.”
Avenatti’s time in prison could eventually be extended. He faces two other trials related to allegations he defrauded clients. One of those is adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who had sued Avenatti’s nemesis, Trump.