NEW YORK — A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld disgraced lawyer Michael Avenatti’s conviction for plotting to extort up to $25 million from Nike – one of several legal messes that have landed him behind bars.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Avenatti’s claim that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support his February 2020 conviction on charges of extortion and honest-services fraud for threatening to smear Nike in the media if he didn't get paid.
A three-judge panel weighing Avenatti's appeal found that evidence, including bank statements, text messages, emails and witness testimony, was enough to permit “a reasonable jury to conclude that he had no claim of right to a personal payment from Nike, let alone to a $15-25 million payment.”
The panel also rejected Avenatti's claims that jurors weren't properly instructed in the law and that the trial judge missed a deadline for requiring him to pay restitution to Nike.
A message seeking comment was left with Avenatti's lawyer.
Avenatti, who rose to fame representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in litigation against former President Donald Trump, was convicted last year of stealing book proceeds from Daniels and sentenced to 14 years in prison for stealing settlement funds from clients and failing to pay taxes for a coffee chain he owned.
In the Nike case, Avenatti was sentenced to 2½ years in prison and ordered to pay $260,000 in restitution. Avenatti, 52, is incarcerated at a federal prison near Los Angeles, where he lived and practiced law. His law license is suspended and he is scheduled to be released from prison in 2036.
According to prosecutors, Avenatti and another lawyer — identified in the appellate court's ruling as one-time Michael Jackson lawyer Mark Geragos — went to Nike in March 2019 claiming to have evidence from a whistleblower client that the company was paying amateur basketball players.
Avenatti demanded that Nike pay a settlement to the whistleblower and hire him and Geragos “to conduct an internal investigation into corruption in basketball," or they would hold a news conference on the eve of the company’s quarterly earnings call to "blow the lid on this scandal,” prosecutors said.
Avenatti told Nike officials that they could either pay him and Geragos $15 million to $25 million to investigate the allegations, or pay him more than $22 million for his silence, prosecutors said.
Geragos, who was not charged, later told prosecutors that he felt Avenatti had “crossed a line” with Nike and expressed to Avenatti that he was “concerned about and uncomfortable with the situation.”
Avenatti was arrested in New York as he was about to meet with Nike lawyers to press his demands. The same day, federal prosecutors in California charged him with stealing from clients. Prosecutors said Avenatti's behavior may have been motivated by crippling debt stemming, in part, from a high-flying lifestyle that included a private jet, fast cars and pricy artwork.
Evidence presented at Avenatti's extortion trial showed he owed at least $11 million at the time and had been evicted from his law offices for failure to pay rent that totaled roughly $50,000 a month.