NEW YORK (AP) — A deep-in-debt Michael Avenatti threatened to deploy his big social media and television presence like a “modern weapon” to try to extort up to $25 million from Nike, a prosecutor claimed Wednesday while a lawyer for the California attorney told jurors at a trial’s opening not to criminalize his client’s “aggressive, tenacious, demanding behavior.”
“He’s outrageous and sometimes he might even be offensive,” attorney Howard Srebnick said of Avenatti, who turned his body and his gaze toward his lawyer and the jury as the first of three fraud trials he faces on two coasts launched.
But what Avenatti said and how he said it in his representation of an amateur California basketball coach who was mad at Nike, “that’s not extortion,” Srebnick insisted.
Prosecutors said Avenatti, 48, tried to extort $15 million to $25 million from Oregon-based Nike last March by threatening to go public with evidence that the shoemaker had paid off the families of highly ranked high school basketball prospects. The trial was expected to last about 2 1/2 weeks.
The Avenatti whose enthusiastic representation of porn star Stormy Daniels in lawsuits against President Donald Trump made him a favorite of cable television program hosts has lost none of his energy and intensity in his conversion to a courthouse defendant in a suit and blue tie.
His eyes canvas a courtroom as large as a basketball gymnasium, settling on jurors, journalists, lawyers and spectators. Sometimes, he passes notes to his attorneys. When the first witness — attorney Scott Wilson — was asked to identify Avenatti in the courtroom, Avenatti sprang to his feet before Wilson could point him out.
Wilson testified he was representing Nike when Avenatti in March 2019 threatened to stage a news conference and go public with allegations Nike was corrupting college basketball unless “we paid him millions of dollars.”
Earlier, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Sobelman pointed a finger at Avenatti and said he “sold out his client and threatened to harm a major company, all to line his pockets.”
The prosecutor said Avenatti used “a weapon, a modern weapon” to try to force the company to pay him up to $25 million. That weapon, Sobelman said, was Avenatti’s large social media following and access to cable television programs.
“When he looked at the coach, he did not see a client to help,” the prosecutor said. “He saw dollar signs for himself.”
Srebnick told jurors that Avenatti’s negotiations with Nike were “not extortion” but were the enthusiastic representation of a coach whose league of 40 teams in California was being sabotaged by Nike withdrawing its annual $72,000 sponsorship.
He said the coach, liking Avenatti’s “bravado,” chose his representation to gain his ability to get the attention of Nike because he had the platform to do that.
Srebnick, aware that some correspondence to be shown to jurors includes profanity, warned them that Avenatti can be “tenacious, bullish.”
But he added: “It’s not extortion because you use harsh language in negotiating for a client.”
He urged them to reject the notion that Avenatti’s “aggressive tenacious, demanding behavior … constitutes a crime.”
Avenatti also faces an April trial in New York on charges that he cheated Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, of proceeds of a book deal and a May trial in Los Angeles on charges that he ripped off clients and others for millions of dollars.
He has denied all charges and maintained he was targeted by the Trump administration after clashing with the president on social media.
Prosecutors had asked U.S. District Judge Paul G. Gardephe to prevent defense lawyers from mentioning Daniels and Trump, but the judge said it would be impossible because it would otherwise seem “Avenatti suddenly became this incredibly public lawyer magically.”
Avenatti grew so famous in the past two years that he considered a run for president after making over 100 appearances on cable television programs and elsewhere to talk about lawsuits Daniels brought against Trump over an affair she claimed occurred before he became president.
Avenatti has been held without bail since he was arrested in Los Angeles this month after prosecutors there said he violated the conditions of his $300,000 bail by moving money around improperly.
By LARRY NEUMEISTER
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