US lawyer Michael Avenatti convicted of defrauding ex-client Stormy Daniels

A 2018 photo shows adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, speaking to the media alongside her lawyer at the time, Michael Avenatti. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Lawyer Michael Avenatti, who rose to fame for taking on then-US president Donald Trump before a slew of criminal charges ended his legal career, was convicted on Friday (Feb 4) of defrauding a former client, porn star Stormy Daniels.

Avenatti, who faces up to 22 years behind bars, had pleaded not guilty to charges he embezzled nearly US$300,000 in book proceeds intended for Daniels.

The verdict by a federal jury in Manhattan followed a two-week trial in which the brash, 50-year-old lawyer represented himself.

Avenatti called no witnesses and did not testify in his own defence.

Daniels, the prosecution's star witness, testified that Avenatti had led her to believe her publisher had not disbursed advance payments totalling US$297,500 for her memoir, Full Disclosure, when she asked in 2018 and early 2019 about the delays.

She said she later learned that Avenatti had diverted the money to an account he controlled, without telling her.

"I felt very betrayed and stupid," Daniels said. "Michael had been lying and stealing from me."

Avenatti downplayed the dispute as a disagreement over legal fees. He said his contract with Daniels, 42, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, entitled him to a reasonable share of her book and media proceeds.

The highlight of the trial was Avenatti's five-hour cross-examination of Daniels, where he sought to undermine his former client's credibility by exposing her interest in paranormal activities.

Daniels, who is producing a documentary-style ghosthunting TV show called Spooky Babes, testified that she believed she could speak with the dead.

The spectacle of Avenatti questioning Daniels capped a public falling-out for a pair who became cable TV mainstays in 2018 for cases they brought against Trump.

Daniels is known for receiving US$130,000 in hush money from Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in exchange for remaining quiet ahead of the 2016 election about sexual encounters she says she had with Trump, which he has denied.

Avenatti was successful in freeing Daniels from her nondisclosure agreement with Trump.

He gained widespread recognition through frequent television appearances that made him a hero to some Trump opponents, prompting him to flirt with running for the White House as a Democrat in 2020 against the Republican president.

But Avenatti was hit with dozens of criminal charges in March and April 2019 accusing him of cheating Daniels, defrauding several other clients, trying to extort up to US$25 million from Nike, and other crimes.

He is appealing his conviction and two-and-a-half-year prison sentence in the Nike case. A federal court trial in California over the other alleged client frauds, in which Avenatti also represented himself, ended in a mistrial. The remaining charges have yet to be tried.

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