The Federal Criminal Complaints Filed Against Michael Avenatti Should Surprise No One

The Federal Criminal Complaints Filed Against Michael Avenatti Should Surprise No One

The case in the Southern District of New York charges Michael Avenatti with multiple counts of extortion, and the case in California charges him with bank fraud and wire fraud.
Caroline Court
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When I decided to write about Michael Avenatti for The Federalist back in April 2018, it was a result of my utter distaste for his public behavior and my opinion that he was an embarrassment to attorneys, like myself, everywhere. I was offended by his boorish behavior, and felt it was not only undignified but extremely unprofessional. He was acting like a clown and brought his circus everywhere he went.

Yet Avenatti quickly found an audience that was ready to buy whatever he was selling—namely, attacks on President Trump. He not only became a darling of the “resistance,” but CNN and MSNBC could not get enough of him. As I noted, in a two-month period in 2018, Avenatti was on CNN 59 times, and on a single day in May 2018, he was on seven different programs on MSNBC.

As Avenatti’s popularity grew and his three-ring circus traveled from cable news network to network, I began to question if he really had his client Stormy Daniels’ best interest in mind or if he was more focused on himself and his own celebrity. He became a man about town, who for some reason people were giddy just to be photographed with.

Who can forget the picture of Avenatti in the Hamptons with CNN’s Don Lemon and others that made the rounds on social media? What about CNN’s April Ryan’s Instagram photo of her and Avenatti the day of the 2018 White House Correspondent’s Dinner? You just have to love that in the background there is a sign that reads “The Drunken Journalist.”

The media treated Avenatti as if he were homecoming king. He was not only celebrated, but given the imprimatur of the mainstream media.

But Avenatti’s actions as a lawyer continued to cross lines, and anyone paying attention knew he didn’t deserve all of the praise heaped on him. Yet his popularity soared. He created a political action committee and solicited donations to supposedly fight Trump. He injected himself into whatever legal issue was hot at the moment, whether it was the crisis at the border or the R. Kelly investigation.

While he thoroughly enjoyed all the media attention, any journalists who had the audacity to question Avenatti quickly became a target. He threatened more than one journalist who had written an unflattering story about him.

He also seemed to threaten legal action at every turn. Avenatti began calling or sending ridiculous, overly aggressive messages to attorneys who dared to question him. On Twitter I have posted some of the outrageous direct messages Avenatti has sent to his critics.

When I questioned whether Avenatti was doing more harm than good inserting himself into asylum cases, I was the subject of one of his sharply worded tweets. To this day, his tweet to “Atty Caroline Court” (an obvious pen name) makes me laugh.

Many times I questioned if some of his actions were ethical. Just last month, the Internal Revenue Service agent who leaked Michael Cohen’s confidential records to Avenatti was arrested and charged by the feds. While the law does not provide for criminal liability for the individual who receives the documents, it takes a special kind of lawyer to accept documents that were accessed in violation of the law.

In fact, I ended a May 2018 article this way: “It remains to be seen, but silly, unprofessional and possibly unethical behavior has a way of catching up with someone.” Well, it seems that Avenatti’s shady conduct as a lawyer has indeed caught up with him. Yesterday, not one but two federal criminal complaints against Avenatti were unsealed.

The case in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) charges Avenatti with multiple counts of extortion, and the case in California charges him with bank fraud and wire fraud. Notably, both cases allege misconduct by Avenatti as a lawyer. This point cannot be overstated.

This is not like the time he was arrested for assault, and the charges were later dropped. In the California case, among other things, Avenatti is accused of receiving a $1.6 million settlement for a client and not only never giving the client his share, but falsely telling the client he never received the money.

As far as accusations of misconduct against attorneys, this is pretty close to the top. In the SDNY case, Avenatti is charged with conspiring to extort Nike of at least $15 million. The case involves recorded telephone calls of Avenatti as well as a recorded in-person meeting.

The charges are very serious. Of course, they are only allegations and even Avenatti is presumed to be innocent. But lest there be any confusion, neither of these two federal cases is going away. While I often referred to Avenatti as a clown and said he was part of the circus, it’s time to swap talk of the “big tent” for the “big house.”

Further, a guilty plea in either case almost definitely means Avenatti will suffer the same fate as Cohen—he will be disbarred and lose his license to practice law. I’d say it’s a fall from grace, but Avenatti never had any grace.

In the wake of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s finding that there was no evidence the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election, many have asked if the media played a role in hyping this narrative without sufficient evidence. The same really must be asked about Avenatti. He became a media sensation even though anyone with her eyes open knew he was likely a conman.

@beyondreasdoubt is a criminal defense attorney in New York City. You can find her musings on Twitter.

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