Michael Avenatti arrested for alleged $20M extortion plot against Nike, embezzling client's money - Southern Business Review

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Monday, March 25, 2019

Michael Avenatti arrested for alleged $20M extortion plot against Nike, embezzling client's money


Celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti was arrested Monday in New York City on charges of trying to extort up to $25 million from Nike by threatening to publicize claims that company employees authorized payments to the families of top high school basketball players.


Avenatti also was separately charged in a second federal case in Los Angeles with embezzling a client's money "in order to pay his own expenses and debts" and those of his law firm and coffee company, and of "defrauding a bank in Mississippi," prosecutors said.


He faces almost 100 years in prison if convicted in both cases.

The famously aggressive litigator gained widespread notoriety in the past year for representing porn star Stormy Daniels in lawsuits against President Donald Trump and his former lawyer Michael Cohen. Those cases were related to a nondisclosure agreement she signed on the eve of the 2016 presidential election to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Trump in exchange for a $130,000 payment.


Last year, Avenatti announced that he was considering running for president, but later decided not to run.


Daniels replaced Avenatti as her lawyer earlier this month after a fallout with him.


Daniels, in a statement released by her new lawyer Clark Brewster, told CNBC that, "Knowing what I know now about Michael, I'm saddened but not shocked regarding his arrest."


"I made the decision weeks ago to terminate Michael's services after discovering that he had dealt with me extremely dishonestly, and I will have my own announcement coming soon," Daniels said.


Avenatti, 48, was arrested in Midtown Manhattan at the law offices of Boies Schiller Flexner at 12:30 p.m. ET by FBI agents, about 15 minutes after he tweeted that he would be disclosing a big high school and college basketball scandal "perpetrated by" Nike that he supposedly had uncovered.


Boies Schiller lawyers were representing Nike, and were scheduled to meet Monday with at their office with Avenatti and his unidentified co-conspirator to discuss Avenatti's demands, according to the company and prosecutors.



Nike stock initially nose dived after Avenatti's tweet, but later recovered much of the losses.


The co-conspirator was identifed by sources to NBC News as Mark Geragos, a high-profile California criminal defense lawyer. Geragos, who has not been charged in Avenatti's case, is currently representing actor Jussie Smollet in a case where the "Empire" cast member is accused of lying to Chicago cops about a purported hate-crime attack.


A person who answered Geragos's office phone told CNBC, "We are not at liberty to speak on the matter. We are not releasing any comments."


Geragos is being represented by prominent New York criminal defense lawyer Benjamin Brafman. Brafman declined to comment when contacted by CNBC.


A CNN spokeswoman said that Geragos no longer is a contributor to that news network.



Prosecutors said Avenatti's alleged effort to shakedown Nike for millions of dollars kicked off in earnest last Tuesday, and quickly escalated over the next two days as he threatened to hold a press conference accusing the company of being involved in bribing amateur basketball players. Avenatti alleged timed his threat to coincide with Nike's quarterly earnings call and the kickoff the National Collegiate Athletic Association's national championship basketball tournament.


According to a criminal complaint, Avenatti offered to refrain from that press conference "only if Nike made a payment of $1.5 million to a client of Avenatti's in possession of information damaging to Nike ... and agreed to 'retain' Avenatti and [the co-conspirator] to conduct an 'internal investigation' — an investigation that Nike did not request — for which Avenatti and [the co-conspirator] demanded to be paid, at a minimum, between $15 [million] and $25 million."


The co-conspirator is "an attorney licensed to practice in the state of California, and similarly known for representation of celebrity and public figure clients," the complaint said.


The client of Avenatti's is "a coach of an amateur athletic union ... men's basketball program based in California," who for a number of years had a sponsorship agreement with Nike, the complaint said.


The complaint says that on Wednesday, Avenatti and a cooperating witness spoke by phone with lawyers for Nike "during which Avenatti stated, with respect to his demands for payment of millions of dollars, that if those demands were not met 'I'll go take ten billion dollars off your client's market cap ... I'm not f---ing around.'"



On Thursday, Avenatti tweeted a link to a CBS News story from early March about the sentencing of three men, including a former Adidas executive and a former Adidas consultant, who were found guilty of conspiring to defraud the University of Louisville and the University of Kansas by funneling money to basketball recruits to those colleges with the goal of eventually signing the players to Adidas endorsement deals.



U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, speaking at a press conference in Manhattan, said, "Avenatti's conduct had nothing to do with valid advocacy on behalf of a client or any other kind of legitimate legal work. Instead, Avenatti used illegal and extortionate threats for the purpose of obtaining in payments for himself,"


"A suit and tie does not mask the fact that at its core, this was an old-fashioned shake down," Berman said.


The prosecutor also said that the investigation is continuing.



Avenatti is due to be appear in Manhattan federal court on Monday on charges of conspiracy, extortion and transmitting interstate communications with intent to extort. That is the same court where Trump's ex-lawyer Cohen pleaded guilty last year to crimes that included campaign finance law violations related to the hush-money payment to Daniels.



Avenatti is expected to be represented at his presentment by a federal public defender.


In the Los Angeles case, Avenatti is charged two criminal counts: wire fraud and bank fraud. His presentment in that case will occur at a later date.


In a statement, Nike said, "Nike will not be extorted or hide information that is relevant to a government investigation."


"Nike has been cooperating with the government's investigation into NCAA basketball for over a year," the company said. "When Nike became aware of this matter, Nike immediately reported it to federal prosecutors. When Mr. Avenatti attempted to extort Nike over this matter, Nike with the assistance of outside counsel at Boies Schiller Flexner, aided the investigation."


"Nike firmly believes in ethical and fair play, both in business and sports, and will continue to assist the prosecutors," the company said.


Avenatti's law firm in Los Angeles had no immediate comment. The White House did not immediately comment.


But Trump's re-election campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted a reference to Avenatti's arrest and to the release of a summary of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller that did not end in criminal allegations against the president.



In the Los Angeles federal case, Avenatti is accused in a 197-page complaint of negotiating a $1.6 million settlement for a client in a civil case, but then giving the client "a bogus settlement agreement with a false payment date of March 10, 2018."


The U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles said "Avenatti misappropriated his client's settlement money and used it to pay expenses for his coffee business, Global Baristas US LLC, which operated Tully's Coffee stores in California and Washington state, as well as for his own expenses."


"When the fake March 2018 deadline passed and the client asked where the money was, Avenatti continued to conceal that the payment had already been received," according to prosecutors.


"Mr. Avenatti is facing serious criminal charges alleging he misappropriated client trust funds for his personal use and he defrauded a bank by submitting phony tax returns in order to obtain millions of dollars in loans," U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said.


Hanna's office said Avenatti also allegedly defrauded a bank in Mississippi by submitting to that bank fake tax returns to get three loans totaling $4.1 million for his law firm and coffee business in 2014.


The tax returns indicated that he had "substantial income even though he had never filed any such returns with the Internal Revenue Service," the prosecutor's office said. "The phony returns stated that he earned $4,562,881 in adjusted gross income in 2011, $5,423,099 in 2012, and $4,082,803 in 2013. ... Avenatti allegedly also claimed he paid $1.6 million in estimated tax payments to the IRS in 2012 and paid $1.25 million in 2013."


"In reality, Avenatti never filed personal income tax returns for 2011, 2012 and 2013 and did not make any estimated tax payments in 2012 and 2013," Hanna's office said.


"Instead of the millions of dollars he claimed to have paid in taxes, Avenatti still owed the IRS $850,438 in unpaid personal income tax plus interest and penalties for the tax years 2009 and 2010. Avenatti also submitted a fictitious partnership tax return for his law firm," the investigators said.


U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles Nicola Hanna said, "On his Twitter account, Mr. Avenatti describes himself as 'Attorney, Advocate, Fighter for Good.' But the allegations in this case describe something different: A corrupt lawyer who instead fights for his own selfish interests by misappropriating close to $1 million that rightfully belong to one of his clients."


Read the New York federal criminal complaint against Michael Avenatti:



Read the Los Angeles federal criminal complaint against Avenatti: