Michael Avenatti, the Californian lawyer who represented porn actress and director Stormy Daniels against former US president Donald Trump, was sentenced to 2.5 years in jail on Thursday for trying to extort millions of dollars from global sports giant Nike.
The attorney claimed he had evidence of bribery inside the company's basketball program.
The 50-year-old had threatened to publish the evidence he said he had unless the sneaker company paid him up to €21 million ($25 million).
Nike’s lawyers successfully argued that Avenatti did considerable harm to the company.
He had tried to falsely link the firm to a scandal in which bribes were paid to the families of NBA-bound college basketball players to steer them towards the company's mentoring programs.
US District Judge Paul Gardephe in Manhattan said Avenatti "had become drunk on the power of his platform" in betraying his client, youth basketball coach Gary Franklin, for his own gain.
"Mr Avenatti's conduct was outrageous," Gardephe said. "He hijacked his client's claims, and he used those claims to further his own agenda, which was to extort millions of dollars from Nike for himself."
How did Michael Avenatti rise to fame?
Avenatti represented Daniels, adult film actress and director, who claimed that she had an affair with Trump before his run for the White House.
She said Trump paid her to keep quiet about it, but the real estate mogul initially denied her allegations and she sued him for defamation. She ultimately lost her bid for further damages on the basis that Trump's comments had not accused her of committing a crime and did not qualify as defamatory; the US Supreme Court refused to consider a final appeal earlier this year.
Avenatti became a regular fixture on US cable news as a result, rumors circling at one point that he might even consider running for the presidency himself.
On Thursday, Judge Gardephe said that new-found fame as a strong critic of Donald Trump was part of the problem in the way he behaved towards Nike.
"He had become someone who operated as if the laws and the rules that applied to everyone else didn't apply to him," the judge said in summing up.
After Avenatti finishes his 30 months in prison, he will undergo three years of supervised release.
Avenatti apologizes for behavior
The tough-talking lawyer appeared to show remorse in court on Thursday, weeping as the sentence was read out.
"I and I alone have destroyed my career, my relationships, my life," Michael Avenatti told the judge before hearing his fate.
He admitted to having "lost his way" and apologized to Franklin and others.
"TV and Twitter, your honor, mean nothing," Avenatti said. "Everyone wants to ride in a limo with you, but very few are willing to sit next to you on the bus. Even fewer, your honor, are willing to take your calls from prison."
In their pre-sentence submission, Avenatti’s lawyers said their client had suffered enough, citing enormous public shame and a difficult stint in jail last year that ended after lawyers said he was particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.
"Avenatti's epic fall and public shaming has played out in front of the entire world. The court may take judicial notice of this fact, as Avenatti’s cataclysmic fall has been well-documented," the lawyers wrote.
Legal woes mount for former Daniels lawyer
But it is not the end of the formerly obscure prosecutor's legal woes.
Avenatti faces two separate trials in California over charges that he defrauded his clients out of millions of dollars.
Daniels is suing him in New York over claims that he cheated her out of $300,000 of profits in a book deal. That case is set to be heard next year.
Avenatti denies all of the charges in the multiple cases against him.
He was also arrested on allegations of domestic abuse in 2018, but LA prosecutors eventually dropped the case.
jf/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters)