California attorney Michael Avenatti remains on track for his first criminal trial next month after entering a not guilty plea Tuesday to the latest charges stemming from his negotiations with the sportswear giant Nike.
Avenatti is accused of trying to extort millions of dollars from the company. Prosecutors had dropped conspiracy charges in a rewritten indictment.
He also faces trial April 21 in a separate New York criminal case in which he is charged with ripping off ex-client porn star Stormy Daniels after she signed a book deal.
In Los Angeles, a May 19 trial is scheduled on charges he defrauded clients of millions of dollars by diverting money they were to be paid to accounts he controlled. He denies charges in all three cases.
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U.S. District Judge Paul G. Gardephe said he'll pass out a jury questionnaire on Jan. 21 to up to 120 potential jurors before beginning oral questioning of prospective jurors the following day.
Gardephe said the questionnaires were necessary because Avenatti had been the subject of so much media coverage before and after all the charges were brought last spring.
In the Nike case, Avenatti was charged with trying to extort up to $25 million by threatening to publicize claims the company funded payouts to young athletes and their families.
Avenatti has said he was targeted unfairly by the government because of his high-profile public persona and his feud with President Donald Trump.
Although he has not yet formally ruled, the judge told prosecutors he was only going to let them call one expert rather than two to testify about the professional obligations and duties of California lawyers.
He also said he would not let the witness give opinions about Avenatti's conduct as prosecutors try to prove a charge that Avenatti committed honest services fraud through his actions.
Gardephe said the testimony could be relevant, if properly limited, but he added that the trial should not become an “attorney grievance proceeding.”
“I'm not going to allow it to take over the trial,” he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Podolsky said the evidence was straightforward to support a “classic honest services fraud” even though it was not brought against a public official, which is more common.
Defense attorney Scott Srebnick said he wants to question witnesses from Nike about the company's motivations for reporting Avenatti's actions to prosecutors.
He noted that Nike was under investigation at the time after four assistant basketball coaches at major schools and others were arrested in September 2017 in connection with bribes paid to coaches and families of top athletes to steer them toward handlers who could represent them when they joined the NBA.
The judge seemed unimpressed.
“My gut reaction is I'm not sure it's relevant why the Nike lawyers did what they did,” Gardephe said, though he added that it was obvious they had reason to curry favor with prosecutors.
Srebnick said the claims against Avenatti were the kind that would normally be a civil matter.