Prosecutor says Michael Avenatti shook down Nike, defence disagrees as extortion trial nears end

Attorney Michael Avenatti arrives at the court in Manhattan, New York July 23, 2019. — Reuters pic
Attorney Michael Avenatti arrives at the court in Manhattan, New York July 23, 2019. — Reuters pic

NEW YORK, Feb 12 — Michael Avenatti's extortion trial neared its end yesterday as a federal prosecutor said the celebrity lawyer had an "agenda" to shake down Nike Inc by threatening to tar it with corruption allegations, while the defence said Avenatti was simply representing his client aggressively.

Prosecutors have charged Avenatti with threatening to hold a press conference to discuss Nike's alleged payments to families of college basketball recruits, unless the apparel company paid him and another lawyer US$15 million to US$25 million (RM62.2 million-RM103.6 million) for an internal probe and his whistleblowing client US$1.5 million.

Avenatti was also accused of defrauding his client Gary Franklin, the coach of California Supreme, once part of a Nike-sponsored basketball league.

He testified he did not seek a probe, preferring a quieter settlement in which Nike would fire executives behind the payments.

Avenatti, 48, became famous representing the adult film actress Stormy Daniels in lawsuits against Donald Trump and becoming a self-described “nemesis” of the US president, including through hundreds of television appearances.

In his closing argument in Manhattan federal court, Assistant US Attorney Matthew Podolsky said Avenatti was trying to escape “a mountain of debt” when he tried to extort Nike last March.

He also said a probe would have made no sense for Franklin, who wanted to restore his relationship with the company.

Podolsky replayed a recording of Avenatti telling a Nike lawyer a settlement of a few million dollars would not “move the needle” for him.

“The defendant had his own agenda, an agenda he never bothered to mention to his client,” Podolsky said. “That's what this case is about, a betrayal of trust and a shakedown.”

Lawyers for Avenatti countered that Franklin had “authorised” him to demand a probe.

One of the lawyers, Scott Srebnick, said emails and text messages between Franklin and his adviser Jeffrey Auerbach show they were uninterested in “diplomacy,” and hired the brash, aggressive, tenacious, “bullish” and hard-charging Avenatti to root out Nike's alleged corruption.

Srebnick's brother Howard Srebnick told jurors that Avenatti “went in there, in the words of Nike itself, to 'just do it' for his client.”

Franklin and Auerbach testified for the prosecution. Jury deliberations in the two-week trial could begin today.

Avenatti also faces scheduled trials this spring in Manhattan for allegedly defrauding Daniels out of proceeds from a book contract, and in California for allegedly defrauding several other clients.

He chose not to testify in the Nike case, after US District Judge Paul Gardephe said prosecutors could question him about his behavior toward Daniels and other clients, without mentioning the criminal charges. — Reuters

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