Disgraced lawyer Michael Avenatti fails to overturn Nike extortion conviction

Former attorney Michael Avenatti exits after the guilty verdict at the United States Courthouse in New York

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Wednesday refused to overturn Michael Avenatti's conviction for extorting Nike, setting back the disgraced celebrity lawyer's effort to shorten his potential 19-year stay in prison.

In a 3-0 decision, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan rejected Avenatti's claims that the evidence didn't support his conviction and that jurors were instructed incorrectly about whether he defrauded his client out of his "honest services."

Avenatti, 52, gained fame in 2018 while representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in litigation against then-U.S. President Donald Trump.

His February 2020 conviction arose from his tape-recorded threat the prior March to stain Nike's reputation and hurt its stock price by exposing the athletic wear company's alleged corrupt payments to families of college basketball prospects.

Avenatti was heard threatening to "blow the lid" on Nike at a press conference unless the company paid up to $25 million for him to conduct a probe, plus $1.5 million to his whistleblowing client, youth basketball coach Gary Franklin.

Prosecutors said Avenatti was looking to enrich himself and pay down heavy debts tied to his law firm and a recent divorce.

For his part, Franklin testified that he didn't want an investigation and merely wanted Nike to resume sponsoring his team.

In a 79-page decision, Circuit Judge Reena Raggi said reasonable jurors could find that Avenatti "used a quid pro quo to solicit a bribe from Nike," and "did not reasonably believe that his retainer demand would serve Franklin's interests but, rather, recognized that it served only his own."

Nike has denied wrongdoing.

A federal public defender representing Avenatti did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Avenatti's career was destroyed after his March 2019 arrest in the Nike case. He was convicted of extortion and honest services fraud and sentenced to 2-1/2 years in prison.

Another 2-1/2 years behind bars were added in June 2022 after Avenatti was convicted of defrauding Daniels out of a book contract.

Fourteen more years were tacked on last December after Avenatti pleaded guilty to cheating four other clients, including a paraplegic, out of millions of dollars.

Avenatti may be eligible for release in January 2036.

The case is U.S. v. Avenatti, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-1778.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York)