Michael Avenatti Declares Innocence at Unusual Arraignment Hearing for Nike Extortion Case

NEW YORK—It had just started to drizzle and the wind picked up Monday evening when Michael Avenatti finally burst through the brass doors of the U.S. District Courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Dozens of reporters and photographers—and even a few intrigued Con Edison workers drilling on Worth Street—had been waiting hours for the celebrity attorney to exit the building.

A handful of U.S. Marshals created a path to help escort him to a black SUV, but Avenatti isn’t one to ignore a photo op. Instead of taking a right out of the courthouse and neglecting the press, he bolted left toward the microphones.

“As all of you know, for the entirety of my career, I have fought against the powerful. Powerful people and powerful corporations,” Avenatti said emphatically as the sound of ConEd drilling and cameras competed for airspace. “I will never stop fighting that good fight. I am highly confident that when all of the evidence is laid bare in connection with these cases, when it is all known, when due process occurs, that I will be fully exonerated and justice will be done.”

Avenatti, the lawyer best known for representing pornographic film star Stormy Daniels in her unsuccessful lawsuit against President Donald Trump, was arrested Monday afternoon and faces federal charges for allegedly trying to extort millions of dollars from Nike.

In court documents filed Monday, prosecutors said that Avenatti and a client, a California-based AAU basketball coach, threatened to release brand damaging information about Nike on the eve of a company earnings call and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament last week. The complaint says that the coach, Avenatti claimed, had “told Nike that he and his client had evidence that one or more Nike employees had authorized and funded payments to the families of top high school basketball players and/or their families and attempted to conceal those payments.”

The documents state that Avenatti threatened to release that evidence in attempt to damage Nike’s reputation and negatively affect the company’s market value unless they were paid $22.5 million.

“If [Nike] wants to have one confidential settlement and we’re done, they can buy that for $22.5 million and we’re done,” Avenatti said in a meeting with Nike lawyers that was recorded for video and audio and transcribed in the affidavit. “Full confidentiality, we ride off into the sunset.”

Monday afternoon, Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, held a news conference and described Avenatti’s actions as an “old-fashioned shakedown.” He replied “no comment” when asked if Avenatti’s tweet at 12:16 p.m. Monday expedited his arrest. Avenatti tweeted that he would hold a press conference on Tuesday to “disclose a major high school/college basketball scandal perpetrated by Nike.” He was in FBI custody by 12:39 p.m. and federal officials announced the charges via Twitter an hour after Avenatti’s initial tweet.

Later in the day, Avenatti was formally arraigned and released on $300,000 bond. The arraignment was strangely long. Reporters waited more than three hours before being allowed inside the courtroom and once inside, sat for another hour before Avenatti arrived.

Avennati was ushered into Courtroom 23B around 6:05 p.m. He sat at a long oak table by himself without an attorney present while the packed room comprised of press, lawyers, clerks, police officers and other courthouse staffers watched in awkward silence. Avenatti, wearing a dark grey shirt, blue tie, white shirt and dark brown shoes, mostly looked straight ahead at the vacant judge’s bench. He rubbed his chin a few times. The whispering started around 6:15. It’s unusual for a defendant to sit that long by his- or herself without their attorney and everyone was getting antsy.

At 6:30, the prosecution and the defense attorneys walked into the room together and proceeded to huddle in a corner to powwow, likely about Avenatti’s bail package. At 6:50, Hon. Katharine Parker entered to preside over the arraignment. Thirty minutes later, Avenatti was released on bail.

The weird, never-ending day wasn’t over though. It was assumed Avenatti would make a statement outside the courthouse afterward, so reporters hung around and waited. A mysterious hour-and-a-half passed between the arraignment and when Avanatti addressed reporters outside the courthouse, though. Reporters were posted near two different exits on different sides of the building to ensure he didn’t sneak out unnoticed. Outside the main entrance on Worth Street, ConEd workers stopped what they were doing to watch the spectacle of photographers setting up and reporters trying to get a good spot along the steel barricades. One passerby shouted, “Lock him up!” once he found out it was Avenatti everyone was waiting for. U.S. Marshals walked in and out of the front door, seemingly figuring out an exit plan, when one shivering reporter muttered, “Something’s weird about this.”

After Avenatti eventually emerged 90 minutes later and declared that he should be exonerated, he made his way through the mob of cameras.

“Do you think these charges are unjustified?” a reporter yelled.

“What can you say about Nike?” another shouted.

“Has your bracket been broken?” someone else screamed.

Avenatti ignored these questions, but he’ll have many more to answer down the road.

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