What Happened At Michael Avenatti's Sentencing in California

Michael Avenatti in New York City in 2018.

Disgraced lawyer Michael Avenatti was sentenced Monday in California to 14 years in federal prison for defrauding four clients out of millions of dollars over several years, ending a years-long battle with a three-hour hearing that included emotional statements from two victims and unsuccessful plea for leniency from Avenatti.

After completing his current five-year total sentence for two other prosecutions on the East Coast, currently scheduled for January 2026, the 51-year-old will begin a separate 168-month term. Two separate juries in the Southern District of New York previously convicted Avenatti of trying to extort Nike and defrauding the client that made him a national star and brief Democratic presidential hopeful in 2018: pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels, who was then locked in litigation with then-President Donald Trump.

Geoffrey Johnson, Avenatti’s earliest victim, told reporters outside court that the 14-year sentence “is appropriate and fair.”

“I feel a sense of closure from the proceeding today,” he said. Speaking into a portable microphone from while in his electric wheelchair, Johnson had told Senior U.S. District James V. Selna inside the courtroom, “I trusted Michael with all my heart” and started to tear up as he said it’s still difficult for him to accept that Avenatti “really did steal all my money from me.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Sagel told reporters Selna’s sentence “was appropriate, necessary and we believe just.”

“We obviously asked for more, but 14 years consecutive to the five he’s already serving is appropriate in this case, especially for justice for the victims.”

Sagel and his co-counsel, Ranee Katzenstein, chief of the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Major Frauds Section, had asked for 210 months – 17.5 years – consecutive with the New York sentences, while Avenatti had asked for 72 months – six years – concurrent.

‘I Am Not An Evil Or Vile Man’

Avenatti apologized to his victims – Johnson, Alexis Gardner, Gregory Barela and Michelle Phan – as a group before describing his achievements as a lawyer, including representing while he was out on bail a woman who’d been raped at a Palm Springs hotel while celebrating her birthday.

“My work allowed her to move on with her life,” Avenatti said. He told Selna, “There are literally hundreds of other clients that I have helped across two decades that I had the privilege of calling myself a lawyer.”

“And I was fortunate enough to receive awards and a lot of recognition for my work and dedication,” Avenatti continued, standing at the lectern and reading at an even pace from a prepared statement. “I do not offer these examples in any way shape or form to explain away my misconduct here, because it cannot be explained away. I merely offer them to show I am not an evil or vile man at my core. I am not a man who has lived a life of criminality or a man who has not contributed to life or society.”

His voice cracked as he asked Selna to “provide me with another chance at life – another chance to do good for others, make a positive difference for our society, and do right by the people I have harmed” and to be a father to his daughter and to his son “who is eight and deserves a father.”

As his first ex-wife, Christine Avenatti Carlin, a former client and three friends looked on, Avenatti warned Selna that a sentence of 14 years or more, “at my age, your honor, will not give me any meaningful chance at any of those things.”

Avenatti’s voice cracked again as he ended with a plea to the judge who’s presided over his case since shortly after his initial arrest in March 2019: “I respectfully ask the court to allow me a future and another chance. I plead for the mercy of the court, your honor. Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Selna replied before reading from a tentative order he released to attorneys on Friday that will be finalized and publicized later this week.

“Mr. Avenatti has done many notable and good things in his life, some reflected in this case, but he’s also done great evil for which he must answer,” Selna said, adding, “It is now time to pay his debts to the victims, the government and society.”

Judge Rejects Avenatti’s Arguments

Selna ordered nearly $7.6 million in restitution to Avenatti’s four client victims which includes the last-minute carve out of $671,750 to Avenatti’s former law partner Michael Eagan, who settled a lawsuit with victim Geoff Johnson and is to be paid by Avenatti only if the clients are first, which is unlikely. The judge then sentenced Avenatti to “the custody of the Bureau of Prisons for a term of 168 months,” telling Avenatti he’ll “be happy to do that” when Avenatti asked him to recommend he serve his sentence at the federal prison in Lompac, California, “so I can be near my family, please.”

The 14-year sentence is for Avenatti’s four wire fraud convictions, and it’s to be served at the same time as a 36-month sentence for obstructing the due administration of the internal revenue laws.

But in a major win for prosecutors, Selna ordered Avenatti serve the 168 months consecutively to his New York sentences, bucking Avenatti’s request and a recommendation from the U.S. Probation Office that the approximately five years he’s already serving apply. He also factored Avenatti’s New York sentences as criminal history, again siding with prosecutors over U.S. Probation and Avenatti. In addition to the $7.6 million in restitution, Avenatti is to pay the IRS $3.2 million, though he was declared indigent by the court early in his case and is not expected to be able to pay the restitution.

Sagel and Katzenstein moved to dismiss Avenatti’s remaining 31 charges, which they had earlier said they’d only do if Selna imposed a sentence that accounted for the totality of Avenatti’s tax and bankruptcy crimes.

Avenatti had argued the total loss amount for his wire fraud crimes was less than $3.5 million, but Sagel and Katzenstein said he should be punished for $12.35 million, the full amount of the settlements regardless of any fees and costs he may have once been due, and Selna agreed.

Avenatti argued against many of prosecutors’ sentencing enhancements on Monday, and he lodged many objections with a tentative sentencing order Selna issued to attorneys but is not publicly available. The judge said at the end of Monday’s hearing that he would issue the final order shortly. The order apparently will address Avenatti’s perjury in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, which Avenatti argued Monday was “not intended to obstruct justice.”

Avenatti also argued his convictions should be considered criminal history, saying the Daniels case should have been part of the California case, and allowing prosecutors to pursue three cases “to carve up indictments and prosecute individuals if they want to in multiple matters.”

“And they can stack the cases against those individuals and then claim that the criminal history category ratchets up with each successful prosecution, your honor,” Avenatti said.

Avenatti also took issue with Sagel pointing out the no judges or former law partners and or opposing attorneys had written letters supporting Avenatti. He noted that his former client Frank Colapinto was in the gallery, as was Rick Kraemer of the courtroom services firm Executive Presentations. Both wrote support letters for him to Selna, but Avenatti said others were deterred because of the high-profile nature of the case.

“In a high-profile matter that received a lot of media attention, a lot of individuals just don’t want to write letters because they don’t want their name in the press, they don’t want their name in tweets, and they just don’t want the added attention,” Avenatti said. “A number of people expressed that to me as well as my advisory counsel and others who were helping me ask for letters.”

Selna, a 2003 George W. Bush appointee who was a longtime partner at the white-shoe law firm O’Melveny & Myers LLP, didn’t change his mind on anything, and he questioned why prosecutors were recommending a break for Avenatti to 210 months when the low-end of his standard range under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines is 324 months, which is 27 years. The judge said Avenatti’s fraud is “not a unique fraud…in the legal community,” with Avenatti mentioning disbarred mega lawyer Tom Girardi.

“Among others,” Selna said.

Avenatti said he shouldn’t be punished based on the conduct of other lawyers, “almost all of whom I’ve never met.”
Selna wasn’t so sure.

“If a particular problem is rampant in the community, and it’s obvious to many, why can’t I take judicial notice of that fact?” Selna said.

“Depending on the particulars, perhaps you could. I don’t know what your honor is referring to,” Avenatti said, apparently referring to a line in the tentative order, which is not yet finalized.

Avenatti indicated he’s asked Selna’s clerk to redact “certain sensitive” information from the final order, but Selna sounded dubious he’ll allow it, telling Avenatti, “I’m not sure what you want.”

“My view is the public has a right to know on what basis I’m imposing a sentence, particularly when that sentence is substantially below what the…guideline is,” Selna said. “That’s a protection for the defense. It’s why we have open courts.”

‘Michael Avenatti Really Broke Me’

The approximately 15 minutes Selna took to impose Avenatti’s sentence followed argument from both Avenatti, who has been representing himself since midway through jury selection in the 2021 trial, and Sagel, who has been the prosecutor on the case since its inception and was at Avenatti’s paralegal’s home when federal agents raided it in March 2019.

Sagel said the “malevolence” of Avenatti’s actions is magnified by the fact that “he didn’t need to do what he did in this case.” He didn’t commit his crimes out of financial desperation. “Despite the significant advantage that the defendant has, despite the significant advantages that this defendant has – a first-rate education, a thriving legal career – he chose to commit the deplorable acts in this case, time and time again and over years.”

Sagel detailed Avenatti’s history of blaming “everyone except for himself,” lodging “baseless accusations against everybody” and “claiming his case was the result of the former president, the former law partner of his, that the government purposely hid evidence of him.”

“He wants to focus the attention on anywhere and everybody but himself. Today the focus is where it belongs: on him and his criminal conduct” Sagel said, adding that Avenatti “wreaked havoc on so many lives.”

“Defendant isn’t a fighter. He’s just a simple fraudster. He doesn’t fight for anyone but himself. Geoffrey Johnson, Alexis Gardner, Gregory Barela, Michelle Phan were the little guys. He didn’t fight for them,” Sagel said.

Johnson and Gardner spoke after Sagel, with Johnson in an electric wheelchair because of paraplegia that he was part of the reason he hired Avenatti in November 2011. Avenatti secured a $4 million settlement against Los Angeles County after Johnson attempted suicide in jail following abuse by guards and inmates, but he never gave him his share of the settlement and instead lied to him while paying him small amounts. His misconduct as Johnson’s attorney ultimately cost Johnson his Social Security benefits and thwarts his attempts to purchase a handicapped-accessible home.

“Meeting Michael and then having him steal my money is the worst thing that has happened to me,” Johnson said. “It’s impossible for me to understand how someone as talented as Michael could do what he did.”

Johnson said he no longer trusts people, and he has “a recurring fear that people will take advantage of me because of my disability.” Johnson also said Avenatti’s pro se representation and biting cross-examination of him in July 2021 almost deterred him from attending his sentencing.

“I’d like to forgive Michael. I really would. But at the same time, there are consequences for one’s actions,” Johnson said, adding: “Michael Avenatti really broke me.”

‘Michael Chose a Villainous Path’

Gardner followed Johnson’s statement by reading aloud a statement that called Avenatti “a psychotic conman who fights only for himself.”

“The person I met and perceived to be honorable and forthright was taking full advantage of me, from the moment that he met me,” Gardner said. “In a world where I needed protection, Michael chose a villainous path.”

She repeatedly referenced Avenatti using her money to buy a jet, staring at him from the lectern as he sat solemnly between his standby counsel, H. Dean Steward and Courtney Cummings, with his folded on the table in front of him. and said, “I wonder how you look at me as a person, in the rut that I was in, in the deep hole that life had put me in, and think about flying in the jet with a couple seats.” She thanked the federal agents who investigated and prosecuted Avenatti for fighting “the fight, the good fight.”

Gardner said Avenatti’s persona as David v. Goliath was always a farce because, “He was the Goliath.”
“He was the person that was stepping on all of the small people that were innocent. That were hurt…that were disabled.”

Gardner also acknowledged she was standing before people who had “known Michael for many years” but said they’d also probably “been to fancy dinners with Michael, have ridden in a fancy car.”

“Everyone has become a witness to this criminal and this crime,” Gardner said. She also referenced her own tears on the witness stand during Avenatti’s cross-examination, saying, “I’m grateful for the tears you have watched me cry throughout this journey and to be here today and to know that for a very long time I do not have to worry about Michael Avenatti bringing any disruption or harm to my life and the lives of innocent people that are just trying to live better lives.”

Phan, a self-made international cosmetics magnate, attended the sentencing with her friend and business partner Long Tran but did not speak. The victims submitted statements to Selna that prosecutors referenced in their sentencing memorandum, and Sagel noted Monday that Avenatti’s only reference to a specific victim was when he unsuccessfully asked Selna to strike Tran’s statement because he was never Aveantti’s client and didn’t personally lose money.

Tran hired Avenatti amid the height of his fame in 2018 to negotiate Phan’s departure from Ipsy, a cosmetics company she built while hosting makeup tutorials on YouTube. Tran testified in trial that he asked Avenatti in 2018 if he’d like to borrow an armored Chevrolet Suburban B-6 with electric door handles, designed to thwart grenades, landmines and assault rifles, as he dealt with intense media attention amid his lawsuits against Trump on behalf of Daniels.

Avenatti secured an approximately $40 million deal that included money for Tran and Phan’s sister in law and $2.7 million for Avenatti, with $35 million going to Phan. She received her first payment of $27 million, then another $4 million, but Avenatti never sent her the remaining $4 million. He argued in sentencing papers that Phan actually owed him money, but Selna quickly dismissed the argument.

What Were Avenatti’s Final Courtroom Words?

Avenatti was arrested in Manhattan in March 2019 on charges of attempting to extort Nike in negotiations over a youth basketball coach’s corruption claims. He was later charged with stealing nearly $300,000 Daniels was due for her book Full Disclosure, which a grand jury returned a month later. At the same time, federal authorities in the Los Angeles-based Central District of California were in the midst of a much broader investigation into Avenatti’s defrauding of his clients and his tax and bankruptcy charges, so they rushed out a charging complaint after New York authorities told them of Avenatti’s looming arrest.

The April 10, 2019, indictment is attributed to the September 2018 Grand Jury. The case began as a civil tax investigation related to Avenatti’s ownership of the Tully Coffee’s chain through Global Baristas LLC. He collected payroll taxes that he never gave to the IRS, according to his indictment, and he went years without paying personal income taxes.

Avenatti was allowed to leave jail on bail and await trial, but Selna signed an arrest warrant on Jan. 14, 2020, after prosecutors presented him with hundreds of pages detailing more financial crimes by Avenatti. Avenatti was arrested hours later at his California State Bar disciplinary hearing in Los Angeles.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, however, Selna granted Avenatti’s request to leave jail for home confinement, and Avenatti stayed at a longtime friend’s home in Los Angeles’ Venice area until surrendering at the Ronald Reagan Federal Building & Courthouse in Santa Ana on Feb. 7 after being allowed to fly home from New York upon his convictions in the Daniels case. Avenatti is appealing both his convictions in that case and his convictions in the Nike case in the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Avenatti can appeal Selna’s U.S. Sentencing Guidelines calculations to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. He showed no visible reaction as he stood listening to Selna sentence him, and he appeared to be acting in good spirits in the moments afterward.

Wearing jail pants and a tan shirt over a long-sleeved white or gray shirt, his final courtroom words before being led out in chains were to Steward, the veteran criminal defense attorney he dismissed during jury selection in his 2021 trial so he could represent himself: “Hey Dean,” Avenatti said. “Be boisterous.”

(Image: via Drew Angerer and Getty Images)

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