A judge says he can’t leave jurors at Michael Avenatti’s extortion trial to think that an immaculate conception made the California lawyer famous
NEW YORK — There’s no keeping porn star Stormy Daniels and President Donald Trump out of California attorney Michael Avenatti’s extortion case, a judge said Wednesday as he ordered the trial to commence Monday and refused the government’s insistence that he ban mention of Daniels and Trump.
The protests of a spirited but eventually frustrated prosecutor — Daniel Richenthal — were overruled by U.S. District Judge Paul G. Gardephe during a hearing that set some boundaries for a Manhattan trial slated to last up to three weeks.
Richenthal insisted it would politicize the trial if Daniels and Trump were mentioned to jurors by lawyers trying to explain why Avenatti is famous.
The judge said nothing would make him happier than to keep the names out of a trial pertaining to allegations that Avenatti tried to extort between $15 million and $25 million from apparel giant Nike.
“But I can’t pretend there was sort of an immaculate conception here where Mr. Avenatti suddenly became this incredibly public lawyer magically,” Gardephe said.
The judge said he tried to think during a 20-minute break in the nearly five-hour hearing of a lawyer with more notoriety and could not.
“We’re deeply troubled,” Richenthal said. “This case has nothing to do with politics in any way, shape or form.”
Avenatti, 48, represented Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, in a lawsuit seeking to break a confidentiality agreement so she could speak about her alleged affair with Trump before he ran for president.
While representing Daniels, Avenatti appeared dozens of times on cable news programs and even flirted with a presidential run.
Avenatti has repeatedly spoken out against the Trump administration and the Justice Department, saying he was targeted for criticizing the president. Besides the Nike case, he also faces trial in April on charges that he cheated Daniels out of book deal proceeds and a May trial in Los Angeles on charges he ripped off others, including clients.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. A week ago, he was arrested in Los Angeles after authorities there alleged that he violated the conditions of his bail by moving money around illegally since his initial arrest last spring.
On Wednesday, he sat in court in his prison blue uniform and orange slippers. Repeatedly, the bespectacled Avenatti ran his fingers across the stubble on his chin and cheeks as he studied documents or passed notes to his lawyers.
Richenthal said he feared that letting the names of Daniels and the president into the trial would cause the defense to politicize the case.
“The suggestion this case was brought because the administration doesn’t like this defendant is frivolous,” he said. “And it is improper.”
The prosecutor said that if Avenatti’s lawyers go too far in talking about Daniels or the president, it might lead prosecutors to introduce evidence to show that Avenatti eventually defrauded Daniels or committed other crimes.
The judge said it was a warning defense lawyers should heed.
Gardephe rejected a defense request that he delay the trial another week after defense attorney Scott Srebnick said Avenatti remained in solitary confinement and it was affecting his “mental state” and his “ability to work with us.”
The judge said he was “deeply disturbed” when he read a letter from Srebnick on Monday that said Avenatti was so isolated that he was separated by a partition from his lawyers when they met with him and he was spending his nights alone in a cold cell.
Gardephe said he was committed to making sure Avenatti had appropriate access to his lawyers and would intervene with prison officials if he must.
On Tuesday, a prison warden told the judge that Avenatti was being kept isolated for his own safety because of his notoriety and his high-profile case.
The warden submitted another letter to the judge late Wednesday, saying the Metropolitan Correctional Center will continue to evaluate whether Avenatti should be put among the general prison population.