The Orange County trial of Avenatti – who came to fame representing porn star Stormy Daniels in her legal battles against President Donald Trump, and who at one-time held presidential ambitions – will be delayed at least two to three months and likely longer, U.S. District Judge V. Selna said.
“This case will proceed promptly but on a reasonable basis,” Selna told the audience in his Santa Ana courtroom.
Avenatti faces a pair of legal battles. In Southern California, he is accused of embezzling a $1.6 million settlement from a client’s trust fund and providing false tax records to obtain a $4.1 million business loan from a bank. In New York, he is accused of trying to shake down Nike for millions of dollars.
In recent weeks, the federal public defenders’ office had unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Selna to allow it to represent Avenatti, arguing in court filings that he was willing to pay whatever the court decides he should for his defense.
During his court appearance on Wednesday, however, Avenatti announced that he had retained H. Dean Steward, a veteran defense attorney, as his legal counsel.
Federal prosecutors told Selna that they are ready to turn over the first wave of evidence to Steward, which they estimated includes more than 100,000 pages, much of it bank records. Prosecutors said they are still reviewing potential evidence seized from Avenatti and his offices.
After Wednesday’s hearing, Steward declined to comment on the government’s allegations against Avenatti, noting he had only taken on the case hours before. Avenatti said he does not yet know if Steward, who is based in Orange County, will also represent him in New York.
Talking to a large group of reporters in an elevator as he was leaving the courthouse, Avenatti said he was “looking forward to the proceedings playing out; I’m looking forward to trial in both cases.”
Avenatti also took the opportunity to get in a jab at one of the son’s of his high-profile nemesis.
On Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee reached agreement with Donald Trump Jr. for him to privately discuss facts surrounding the Russia investigation. That has calmed talk about the president’s son getting a subpoena to appear, a matter than could have ended up in a courtroom.
Embattled attorney Michael Avenatti speaks to reporters after a pre-trial hearing in Santa Ana, Calif.
A day after a federal judge rejected Michael Avenatti's request to be represented by a public defender, the embattled attorney announced Wednesday that he had hired his own private counsel for his trial on charges that he defrauded clients, a bank and the federal government.
Avenatti appeared for a short hearing in Santa Ana, Calif., federal court alongside Dean Steward, whom Avenatti called an “incredibly well qualified” lawyer.
On Tuesday, Avenatti filed paperwork asking to formally establish an attorney-client relationship with the federal public defender's office. That request was denied without explanation by U.S. District Judge James V. Selna. The paperwork was stamped in in bright red letters saying: "DENIED by order of the court."
Avenatti’s request for a public defender included a proviso that he delay submitting an affidavit detailing his financial difficulties. The 48-year-old claimed that his defense efforts in multiple ongoing criminal and civil cases made it impossible for him to accurately document his financial situation. He added that he wanted to “contribute significantly” for his representation by a public defender but also was unable to fully pay for a private lawyer.
"Mr. Avenatti has tried to secure private counsel over the course of the past month but has been unsuccessful,” Deputy Federal Public Defender Georgina Wakefield wrote in Tuesday's filing. Less than 24 hours later Avenatti didn’t address the change in circumstances but said, “I’m happy that Mr. Steward has agreed to represent me. He has an incredible track record in this courthouse and otherwise."
On Wednesday, Judge Selna asked the federal public defender’s office to submit a bill for their work on Avenatti’s behalf in submitting the rejected request. A government website indicated that work would total $148/hour. Avenatti and Steward readily agreed to pay the full amount.
Government lawyers had cast doubt about Avenatti’s ability to cover legal expenses and suggested the uncertainty in recent days may be an attempt to delay its prosecution. “[Avenatti] has a pattern and practice of using delay tactics to avoid responsibility for his conduct,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Julian Andre.
Nonetheless, the scheduled June 4 trial date has been pushed back – possibly until next year. Selna asked for the parties to agree on a date several months from now but acknowledged the case will likely get delayed again. “The case will proceed promptly but on a reasonable basis,” he said.
Andre said the government will soon start the discovery process and turn over 115,000 documents – mostly bank records – while it processes other evidence seized in its investigation.
Last month, Justice Department lawyers filed a 61-page indictment charging Avenatti with 36 counts of fraud, tax evasion and other alleged crimes. Avenatti has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Avenatti also has difficulty finding a lawyer in New York to represent him in a separate federal extortion case in which he’s charged with trying to bilk millions of dollars from Nike. Last month, the judge in that case gave Avenatti an additional 30 days to hire legal help. Today Avenatti said he had yet to hire for that case.