Judge won’t release Avenatti over coronavirus fears

Michael Avenatti
5-7 minutes
Michael Avenatti. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A federal judge in Los Angeles has rejected a plea from prominent convicted lawyer Michael Avenatti to be released from jail because of the risk he could contract the coronavirus.
U.S. District Court Judge James Selna turned aside Avenatti’s claims that a bout he had with pneumonia last September puts him in grave danger if COVID-19 begins to rampage through federal prisons like the Manhattan detention center where he’s currently locked up.
Avenatti, who was convicted by a New York federal court jury last month on charges of trying to extort shoemaking giant Nike and is facing other federal charges in Manhattan and Los Angeles, also contended that his cellmate was recently removed after exhibiting fever and a severe cough.
But Selna, who revoked Avenatti’s bail in January based on evidence of extensive financial manipulation, said the health concerns were not adequate to justify his release.
“The Court is mindful of the Covid 19 pandemic,” Selna wrote in a three-page order Saturday. “The Court accepts Avenatti’s showing that the had pneumonia about six months ago. ... However, there is no showing that his cellmate was infected by the virus, and there have been no reportedcases of Covid 19 at the New York MCC.”
“There is no basis to release Avenatti on medical grounds,” added Selna, an appointee of President George W. Bush. “The Bureau of Prisons and MCC specifically have taken substantial steps to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. MCC has moved ‘at-risk’ prisoners, which presumably includes Avenatti, to a separate unit.”
Avenatti rose to prominence in 2018 after filing a suit against President Donald Trump on behalf of adult film star Stormy Daniels, seeking to void a non-disclosure agreement the pair reached just prior to the 2016 election — a deal that appeared intended to hush up claims she and Trump had sex a decade earlier. Avenatti became a fixture on cable news shows and briefly mulled entering the 2020 Democratic presidential race.
However, Avenatti and Daniels had an acrimonious relationship, with the porn star eventually switching to another lawyer last year. One of the three pending criminal cases against Avenatti involves charges he swindled Daniels out of nearly $300,000.
Federal prosecutors opposed Avenatti’s recent request for release, arguing that his risk of infection is “minimal and entirely manageable.”
“Defendant … has not cited any information or evidence demonstrating that defendant, who is an otherwise healthy 49-year man, is at greater risk from COVID-19 merely because he may have had pneumonia six months ago,” government lawyers wrote. “Thus, there is no reason to conclude that defendant’s personal circumstances are meaningfully distinguishable from the vast majority of individuals detained in BOP facilities or would justify the extraordinary relief he now seeks.”
The prosecution also said Avenatti’s history indicated that the California resident was not only likely to defy court orders, but also the statewide lockdown ordered by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“A person who ignores such admonitions and rules could increase infection rates, leading to severe illness and death. Defendant has shown an unwillingness or inability to follow rules, and a disregard for the welfare of others. Thus, defendant’s failure to follow rules poses particular dangers to the community,” prosecutors wrote.
Documents submitted by the government said officials at the Manhattan detention center where Avenatti is located have taken numerous steps to limit the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, including screening prisoners and staff for fevers, distributing more soap and segregating most prisoners over 55.
However, H. Dean Steward, a lawyer for Avenatti, said the conditions at the lower-Manhattan jail known as the MCC are deplorable and are inviting a major COVID outbreak.
"Mr. Avenatti’ s cell contained three rats," Steward wrote. "Inmates on one unit were forced to share one toilet among 26 people, and prevented from washing their clothing: prime conditions for the spread, rather than containment, of infectious disease."
The federal Bureau of Prisons reported its first confirmed case of novel coronavirus Saturday, involving an inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Two staff members at BOP facilities in Kansas and Texas have also been stricken by the illness.
Avenatti’s trial in the New York case involving stealing from Daniels is set to open April 21, but the judge handling that matter said last week it seemed “highly doubtful” it would go forward then due to virus-related suspensions of most proceedings in federal courts nationwide.
Avenatti’s trial on fraud, perjury, tax dodging, and embezzlement charges in the Los Angeles case is scheduled for May 19, but Selna said that will likely be postponed as well.
Avenatti's sentencing on the Nike extortion charges is set for June 17.
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March 22, 2020
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