The once-prominent attorney Michael Avenatti is now representing himself at his latest criminal trial, a move that sets the stage for a confrontation with his former client, the adult film-maker and actor Stormy Daniels, over her claim that he stole money she was owed for a book.
In court in Manhattan on Tuesday, on the second day of Avenatti’s trial on charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, US district judge Jesse M Furman granted Avenatti’s request to represent himself after he cited a “breakdown” with his lawyers over trial strategy.
Particularly at issue, Avenatti said, was how to question a former longtime office worker testifying by video.
Daniels was expected to take the witness stand as early as Wednesday.
Avenatti, 50, denies claims that he took nearly $300,000 of an $800,000 advance paid to Daniels for her 2018 book, Full Disclosure, in which she detailed an affair she says she had with Donald Trump and his attempts to silence her. The former president denies the affair.
“This is a case about a lawyer who stole from his client,” said assistant attorney Andrew Rohrbach, adding that Avenatti forged Daniels’s signature in a letter to an agent as part of the crime.
“A lawyer who lied to cover up the scheme.”
Furman told Avenatti earlier that his right to represent himself was “sharply curtailed” once his trial began. But the judge granted Avenatti’s request after the accused insisted he wanted to act as his own lawyer, as he did in a trial in California for six weeks last year.
At that federal trial, Avenatti represented himself against charges that he cheated clients of millions of dollars. It ended in a mistrial.
In early 2020, Avenatti was convicted of trying to extort up to $25m from the sportswear giant Nike by threatening to tarnish the company’s reputation. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. At that trial, he did not testify and was represented by lawyers.
The charges against Avenatti related to threats that he would falsely accuse Nike of making payments to amateur basketball players. At one point, he told lawyers for Nike the allegations could “take $10bn off your client’s” stock market capitalization and that he was “not fucking around with this”.
Avenatti became well known in 2018 as he represented Daniels in lawsuits against Trump, from whom Daniels received $130,000 shortly before the 2016 presidential election, to stay silent about her claim of an affair a decade before.
In opening statements on Monday, the attorney Andrew Dalack, then representing Avenatti, said his client had an agreement with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, to share the proceeds of any book deal.
Dalack said Avenatti loaned Daniels hundreds of thousands of dollars and was entitled to a “reasonable percentage” of proceeds from the book.
The trial continues.