Appeals court upholds Michael Avenatti’s conviction for cheating Stormy Daniels

An appeals court on Wednesday upheld Michael Avenatti’s conviction on charges that he stole book proceeds from Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who catapulted him to fame when he represented her in the legal fight against former President Trump.

The ruling from the three-judge Second Circuit Court of Appeals panel affirms a lower-court 2022 ruling, which sentenced the California lawyer to four years in prison and required him to pay $148,000 in restitution and forfeit the roughly $297,000 that prosecutors say he stole from Daniels. Avenatti was already incarcerated, at the time of the sentence, following another fraud conviction.

Avenatti was representing Daniels when she signed a book deal that provided an $800,000 payout, and prosecutors said Avenatti illegally pocketed about $300,000 of her advance on “Full Disclosure,” published in fall 2018. At the time, Avenatti’s law practice was struggling financially, even as he appeared on cable television regularly.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, at the time of Avenatti’s sentencing, said that he hoped the sentence “will send a message to lawyers” not to take advantage of their clients.

In a court filing on Wednesday, the three-judge panel rejected four arguments advanced by Avenatti.

On the argument that the jury was given instruction that was “irrelevant in certain parts, confusing, and prejudicial,” the panel ruled that “any error in the jury instructions was harmless. The evidence against Avenatti was overwhelming.”

The judges also disagreed with the argument that “the district court wrongly pressured the jury into returning a verdict when it appeared deadlocked” by repeating certain directions to the jury.

The panel ruled that the district court’s language “was not coercive… Nor was there anything improper, in these circumstances, about the district court’s decision to instruct the jury twice.”

The panel rejected Avenatti’s argument that the trial court “unlawfully modified the sequence of his restitution payments,” noting that Avenatti’s counsel did not object at the time of the change and that even if they had, the claim would be “meritless.”

Finally, the panel rejected Avenatti’s claim that a recent Supreme Court decision related to identity theft “mandates that his conviction for aggravated identity theft be vacated.” The judges drew a distinction between the Supreme Court case in Durbin v. United States, in which case identity theft did not play a “key role.”

“Here, by contrast, identity theft was an essential part of Avenatti’s criminal conduct,” the panel wrote.

The Associated Press contributed.

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