Embattled Southland attorney Michael Avenatti Tuesday appealed a federal judge’s order to jail him as he awaits trial in New York City and later in Santa Ana.
U.S. District Judge James Selna on Jan. 15 ordered Avenatti’s bail revoked based on allegations from federal prosecutors that he was engaging in a scheme to keep a step ahead of his various creditors.
Avenatti was placed in the custody of the U.S. Marshal and taken several days later to New York City, where he is to be tried on charges of extorting the Nike shoe company. Jury selection in that case began Monday and is expected to take at least a couple of weeks.
Avenatti’s attorney, Dean Steward, said his client is in protective custody and is locked in his cell for 23 hours a day, making it difficult for him to prepare his defense.
“He was in El Chapo’s cell for awhile,” Steward said, referring to the Mexican crime boss Joaquin Guzman.
“The warden said it’s for his own protection” because Avenatti is so well known, Steward told City News Service. “But the net effect is he is being held like he’s one of the most dangerous criminals in the system.”
Steward said it makes it difficult to help his client prepare his defense because of the rules for inmates held in protective custody.
“The actual interviewing between lawyer and client has to happen between a screen,” Steward said. “He’s face-to-face, but through that screen you can’t show him documents. There’s a lot of things that are much more difficult when in that kind of custody situation. In normal custody I can sit at a conference table with my client. But he’s in this special protective situation where even his lawyers can’t physically get near him, and that makes it very difficult.”
A couple of days ago Avenatti’s warden allowed him access to some discovery documents in his cell, Steward said.
“That’s a breakthrough, but he still doesn’t have access to a computer or word processing. If he wants to write a note to his lawyers, he has to do it longhand,” Steward said.
Steward said he plans to raise those issues at a hearing Friday morning before Selna.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined comment.
Prosecutors alleged there was probable cause that Avenatti — who rose to prominence representing adult film actress Stormy Daniels in a dispute over a nondisclosure agreement with President Donald Trump — of illegally structuring transactions to elude detection so he could acquire a Mercedes-Benz and continue living a “lavish lifestyle.”
Avenatti’s attorneys did not necessarily dispute much of what prosecutors alleged, but rather argued it was not against the law.
Prosecutors said they suspect Avenatti could be guilty of mail fraud, wire fraud and structuring currency transaction to evade reporting requirements.
Avenatti owes former law partner Jason Frank’s firm $5 million stemming from a judgment in Los Angeles Superior Court, former client William Parrish about $2.2 million after a judgment in Santa Barbara Superior Court, his second wife Lisa Storie Avenatti about $2.5 million in spousal and child support, and the state of Washington about $1.5 million in taxes, according to prosecutors.
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