Celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti has been indicted by a federal grand jury in California on 36 counts, including fraud, tax dodging, and embezzlement.
The latest charges come about two weeks after federal prosecutors in New York and California accused Avenatti of trying to extort millions from Nike, Inc., and of stealing from clients and forging tax returns to defraud a bank.
Avenatti has denied the charges, tweeting on Thursday, “I intend to fully fight all charges and plead NOT GUILTY. I look forward to the entire truth being known as opposed to a one-sided version meant to sideline me.”
The new indictment names five clients whom Avenatti allegedly scammed—and they include cases The Daily Beast has previously reported on, from a disabled man and a YouTube beauty mogul to a client who has accused Avenatti of running his business like a “Ponzi Scheme.”
Celebrity Beauty: Client 1
In January 2015, Avenatti negotiated a $4 million settlement on behalf of “Client 1,” Geoffrey Johnson, a paraplegic man who sued Los Angeles County over his emotional and physical injuries from a stay in jail.
Johnson’s story is tragic. According to his now-settled lawsuit, Los Angeles police encountered him at 6:30 a.m. on April 24, 2011, when he was “completely naked, praying in the middle of the street outside his apartment building.”
The lawsuit alleges Johnson was suicidal when transported to a local hospital. His intake form, according to the civil suit, said he “believed that the only way to escape the plot of others to kill him was to commit suicide.”
Johnson would be transferred from hospital to jail cell, after he allegedly lunged at a doctor. He was taken to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility and placed in a cell with a violent prisoner, despite his father and sister warning the jail of his mental illness and suicidal thoughts.
After being released and then re-arrested, Johnson was kept in a cell where inmates were known to spit and throw feces. Johnson attempted to hang himself but landed on his head, resulting in a permanent disability from a spinal cord injury.
According to the indictment, Avenatti “falsely represented to Client 1 that the settlement agreement had to remain confidential,” and that Los Angeles County couldn’t pay the $4 million in one lump sum. Avenatti also allegedly said the county needed to approve a Special Needs Trust for Johnson before he could receive the funds.
Yet Avenatti received millions from the county and failed to disclose the payment to Johnson, prosecutors allege.
From Jan. 26, 2015 to March 30, 2015, Avenatti transferred $3.12 million of Johnson’s money to an Eagan Avenatti account, before transferring “substantial portions” to an account for his law firm Avenatti & Associates, then to other bank accounts controlled by Avenatti, including his personal bank account and accounts associated with “GB Auto.”
By July 6, 2015, the indictment states, Avenatti “had drained all of the settlement proceeds” out of Johnson’s client-trust account, using much of it to pay his own personal expenses.
Avenatti then made 69 payments of $1,000 to $1,900—totaling at least $124,000—to Johnson from July 2015 to March 2019, prosecutors say. The lawyer also paid assisted living facilities for Johnson’s rent, and “falsely represented” to Johnson that these payments were “advances” on the settlement owed to him.
In 2017, Johnson told Avenatti he wanted to purchase his own residence, and Avenatti allegedly agreed to find him a real estate broker.
According to prosecutors, Avenatti promised Johnson he’d received the settlement proceeds to buy a house, but after Johnson was in escrow on the purchase, Avenatti falsely informed him there was no money, because the county still hadn’t approved the Special Needs Trust.
Avenatti also caused Johnson to lose his Social Security benefits, prosecutors say.
In November 2018, Avenatti informed Johnson he would help him provide documentation to the Social Security Administration, which was evaluating Johnson’s eligibility for Supplemental Security Income benefits.
“Knowing full well that the requested information could lead to inquiries that could reveal that defendant Avenatti had embezzled [Johnson’s] portion of the settlement proceeds, defendant Avenatti failed to provide the requested information to SSA, which resulted in [Johnson’s] SSI benefits being discontinued” in February 2019, the indictment alleges.
Last month, facing questions over Johnson’s settlement at a judgment-debtor exam, Avenatti falsely told Johnson that the county had finally approved the Special Needs Trust and Johnson would receive his settlement.
Avenatti then had Johnson sign a document claiming he was “satisfied” with Avenatti’s representation of him. Avenatti claimed the signature “was necessary to effectuate the settlement agreement,” the indictment states.
Celebrity Beauty: Client 2
Avenatti negotiated a settlement for the unidentified “Client 2” on Jan. 7, 2017, with “Individual 1” agreeing to make an initial payment of $2.75 million by Jan. 28. An additional payment of $250,000 was due Nov. 1, 2020 under the agreement.
Prosecutors say Avenatti, who was owed 33 percent of the total $3 million, didn’t provide a copy of the settlement agreement to the client.
Instead, Avenatti falsely represented that “Individual 1” would make an initial lump-sum payment that would go to Eagan Avenatti’s fees. The individual would then make 96 monthly payments over the next eight years, Avenatti allegedly told his client.
Still, Avenatti allegedly concealed the $2.75 million settlement, and transferred $2.5 million of it to the attorney-client trust account for another law firm. The same day, prosecutors allege, Avenatti had this law firm transfer the money to Honda Aircraft Company, LLC, so Avenatti could purchase a private jet through his company, Passport 420. (The remaining $250,000 was transferred from an EA account to an A&A account.)
To appease the client, Avenatti made 11 payments totaling $194,000 to the client from March 2017 to June 2018, the indictment states.
After that, Avenatti stopped paying the client, claiming Individual 1 was not complying with the settlement agreement.
On March 24, 2019, the client met Avenatti at his Los Angeles residence, where Avenatti claimed the client would soon receive a payment to make up for the missed monthly payments—monthly payments to which Individual 1 never agreed.
Celebrity Beauty: Client 3
In December 2017, Avenatti negotiated a $1.6 million settlement on behalf of a client, which appears to be Gregory Barela, who previously accused Avenatti of stealing his payout and running his firm like a “Ponzi scheme.”
In May 2015, Barela filed a lawsuit against a Colorado-based company over an intellectual property dispute. The civil complaint said Barela was “the inventor of a product which can be summarized as a paving system for paving or flooring.”
Under the settlement agreement, Barela was owed $1.6 million by January 10, 2018, followed by three payments of $100,000 by Jan. 10 of 2019, 2020, and 2021, according to the indictment. Avenatti was owed $760,000 in attorney’s fees, or 40 percent of the total $1.9 million payout.
During a Dec. 28, 2017 meeting at Eagan Avenatti’s offices, Avenatti gave Barela an “altered copy” of the settlement, which forged a new payment deadline of March 10, 2018.
Meanwhile, Avenatti pocketed Barela’s money and used $1.59 million of it to pay his own expenses related to his coffee company, Global Baristas, prosecutors say.
From March 2018 through November 2018, court papers allege, Avenatti lied to Barela, saying the company hadn’t paid the settlement. Avenatti claimed he was working on obtaining the money Barela was owed.
In April 2018, Avenatti began providing Barela multiple payments totaling $130,000—calling them “advances” on the unpaid $1.6 million settlement.
Celebrity Beauty: Client 4 and 5
In September 2017, Avenatti negotiated a “Common Stock Repurchase Agreement” with a company on behalf of Client 4 and Client 5. Based on the payment deadlines and figures listed in the indictment, these clients appear to be famous beauty vlogger Michelle Phan and a business associate, Long Tran.
As The Daily Beast reported, Phan launched her own makeup brand, EM Cosmetics, in 2013. Four years later, she announced she was leaving Ipsy, a beauty subscription service she co-founded, and that she’d acquire EM from the company.
According to prosecutors, an unnamed company agreed to repurchase Phan’s shares for about $27.47 million, followed by additional shares for about $8.14 million. The total repurchase amount was about $35.62 million, court papers state.
On Sept. 18, 2017, the company wired $27.41 million to Avenatti’s client-trust account. About $2.79 million was designated for Avenatti’s attorney’s fees, which was 7.5 percent of the total payout.
Yet in March 2018, Avenatti withheld Phan’s $8.14 million pa