Trump foe Michael Avenatti pleads not guilty to extorting Nike, ripping off Stormy Daniels

Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti leaving a US federal court in New York in April 2018. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Lawyer Michael Avenatti pleaded not guilty on Tuesday (May 28) to charges that he extorted Nike, just hours after entering a not-guilty plea to defrauding porn star Stormy Daniels, the client who propelled him to fame as an outspoken adversary of US President Donald Trump.

"I am now facing the fight of my life against the ultimate Goliath, the Trump administration," Avenatti, 48, told reporters after leaving the courthouse, reiterating previous assertions that he is being targeted for political reasons.

"I am confident that when a jury of my peers passes judgment on my conduct, justice will be done and I will be fully exonerated."

Dawn Dearden, a spokeswoman for US Attorney Richard Berman's office, which is prosecuting the cases, declined to comment.

Avenatti entered his pleas to extortion, communication with intent to extort and two counts of conspiracy in connection with Nike at an afternoon hearing in federal court in Manhattan.

As US District Judge Paul Gardephe read each of the four counts, the lawyer responded four times, "100 per cent not guilty."

Earlier in the day, public defender Sylvie Levine entered a not guilty plea for Avenatti to charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in connection with Daniels before US Magistrate Judge James Cott in Manhattan.

Avenatti has hired Miami lawyer Scott Srebnick to represent him in the Nike case. At a brief hearing between his two pleas, Avenatti told US District Judge Deborah Batts, who is expected to oversee the Daniels case, that he plans to hire a private lawyer in that case as well.

He is due back in federal court in Manhattan for hearings in both cases on June 18. He also faces a third set of charges brought by federal prosecutors in California.

In an indictment made public last Wednesday, federal prosecutors in Manhattan accused Avenatti of stealing about US$300,000 (S$400,000) from Daniels to fund an extravagant lifestyle, including a Ferrari automobile, after helping her secure a book contract.

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was paid US$130,000 by Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen shortly before the 2016 presidential election to keep quiet about a sexual encounter she said she had with Trump in 2006. The president has denied having sex with her.

Avenatti represented Daniels in lawsuits related to the hush money and later in negotiating the deal for Daniels' book, Full Disclosure, which was published in October.

Prosecutors said Avenatti diverted two US$148,750 installment payments from Daniels' US$800,000 book advance by forging her signature in a letter to her literary agent and directing that the money be sent to his bank account.

Avenatti eventually paid US$148,750 to Daniels after obtaining the funds from another source, but lied when she asked where the second payment was, according to prosecutors. Avenatti told Daniels the publisher "owes me a payment" and that he was "on it," prosecutors said.

Daniels has not received that payment, prosecutors said. She dropped Avenatti as her lawyer earlier this year.

Avenatti was arrested in March on charges of trying to extort more than US$20 million from Nike by threatening to expose what he called its improper payments to recruits for college basketball teams it sponsored.

Nike has denied wrongdoing, and helped prosecutors before Avenatti's arrest.

At the same time, Avenatti was charged by prosecutors in Los Angeles with stealing millions of dollars from clients to pay for personal and business expenses and lying to the Internal Revenue Service and a Mississippi bank about his finances. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

Before his arrest, Avenatti was a fixture on cable news channels as an outspoken critic of Trump, and briefly toyed with running for president in 2020.

Michael Cohen is about three weeks into a three-year prison term after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations related to the hush money payment to Daniels and other financial crimes.

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