Attorney Michael Avenatti showed up in court Wednesday accompanied by a well-known Orange County lawyer, heading off a legally tricky maneuver he had been trying to pull off to get the Public Defender’s Office to represent him in an embezzlement and bank fraud case.
Avenatti hired attorney Dean Steward to represent him in his case in federal court in Santa Ana.
When asked why he switched from his prior representation with the Bienert Katzman law firm, Avenatti told reporters he did so “for various reasons. I made a decision to change counsel and I’m happy Mr. Steward has agreed to represent me. He has an incredible track record in this courthouse and otherwise. Check out his background. He’s a very able attorney and I’m highly confident in his abilities.”
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge James Selna denied a request from the Public Defender’s Office to represent Avenatti for the time being and bill him later, when the attorney has sorted out a morass of civil and criminal litigation he is involved in. Selna told a chief deputy Public Defender in court Wednesday morning to bill Avenatti for services rendered so far.
After the hearing, Avenatti objected to media reports that Selna had denied the request.
“He denied it unless a financial affidavit was submitted,” Avenatti said. “At no time have I sought to avoid (paying for his defense). No one is trying to freeload off the government.”
Selna told prosecutors and Steward to settle on a tentative trial date within the next couple of months, with the understanding that it will likely be held much later in the year. Steward said he was working on a case now so “I’m pretty jammed this fall.”
Selna said he intends to shepherd the case through to trial “promptly, but on a reasonable basis.”
When asked which case would proceed to trial first, the one here or the Nike extortion claim against Avenatti in New York, he quipped, “We’ll see who goes to trial first. Me or Don Jr.,” referring to the president’s son.
Avenatti said “I don’t know yet” when asked if Steward would represent him in New York, as well.
“I am highly confident that when this process plays out that justice will be done,” Avenatti told reporters.
The Public Defender’s Office had filed a request Tuesday on behalf of Avenatti, requesting to have Cuauhtemoc Ortega and Georgina Wakefield appointed to represent the attorney, who came to national prominence in a legal tussle with President Donald Trump over a nondisclosure agreement with porn actress Stormy Daniels.
The Public Defender’s Office argued that Avenatti was willing to pay whatever the court decides he should owe. Avenatti’s financial situation is up in the air, the attorneys argued in the filing, because he faces two criminal cases and his continued work on pending civil matters is uncertain.
Public defenders are usually appointed for defendants who are indigent and cannot afford a lawyer. But they can be appointed to more well-off defendants if the cost of defending the case exceeds living expenses, according to the Public Defender’s filing, which says Avenatti “submits that he falls into the latter category of eligibility and requests an opportunity to contribute to his representation.”
The Public Defender also asked that Selna not require Avenatti to fill out a form at this time that would detail his finances.
“Providing a complete picture of Mr. Avenatti’s finances at this stage of the proceeding would be a demanding and time-intensive effort,” the motion reads. “Mr. Avenatti is involved in several lawsuits requiring ongoing expense and financial responsibility.”
The 48-year-old Avenatti has pleaded not guilty to a 36-count indictment citing tax, wire and bank fraud and alleging he stole millions of dollars from clients. He has also denied a charge in New York that he threatened to expose that Nike allegedly paid high school basketball players unless they paid him up to $25 million.
In addition, Avenatti is “a party to several civil lawsuits — both personally and professionally — at various stages of the proceedings, including on appeal,” the motion noted. He’s also facing efforts by his former law partners to collect on a $10 million court-ordered payment to them.
“Mr. Avenatti has tried to secure private counsel over the course of the past month but has been unsuccessful due in large part to the government’s forfeiture counts,” according to the Public Defender’s motion, which says Avenatti also fears that federal prosecutors in New York and California will use “his statements against him” in both cases.
Last week, Selna gave Avenatti until Wednesday to either find a new attorney to represent him, file a request for a public defender or represent himself.
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