January 27, 2020 / 11:23 AM / 21 days ago

Focus on Avenatti, U.S. judge says, as Trump critic's Nike extortion trial begins

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The judge overseeing Michael Avenatti’s extortion trial said the case should not focus on Nike Inc’s alleged corruption or devolve into celebrity name-dropping, as jury selection began for the case against the lawyer and critic of U.S. President Donald Trump.

FILE PHOTO: Lawyer Michael Avenatti speaks as he departs federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York, New York, U.S., May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

Prosecutors accused Avenatti, 48, of trying to shake down Nike for up to $25 million by threatening to publicize accusations it illegally paid families of college basketball recruits, unless it hired him and another celebrity lawyer, Mark Geragos, to conduct an internal probe.

Avenatti countered that he was simply doing his job representing a whistleblowing coach in negotiations with Nike.

Prosecutors said he also defrauded the coach by concealing a settlement offer made by Nike, because Avenatti was heavily in debt and wanted millions of dollars for himself.

Avenatti has pleaded not guilty. Nike has denied wrongdoing.

Outside the presence of prospective jurors, the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe in Manhattan, made clear that the trial should be about Avenatti and not whether Nike undertook a “large-scale effort to corrupt college basketball.”

Gardephe also said Avenatti’s lawyers cannot mention by name Colin Kaepernick, who Geragos had represented in separate negotiations with Nike, calling the football quarterback a “divisive figure.”

The judge also said Avenatti’s lawyers cannot mention several other well-known people at trial, agreeing with prosecutors that jurors might be confused.

“We’re not going to get into R. Kelly, we’re not going to get into Jeffrey Epstein, we’re not going to get into Rudy Giuliani,” Gardephe said, referring respectively to the singer, late registered sex offender, and lawyer for Trump.

Geragos is not expected to testify.

Avenatti has been jailed since Jan. 17 in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan for a suspected bail violation in a separate case.

He was stone-faced and kept his hands behind his back as roughly 120 prospective jurors entered a courtroom to fill out questionnaires for the trial, which they were told should last 2-1/2 weeks.

Gardephe told jurors that nothing ever written or said about Avenatti “matters at all” at the trial.

“In our country, we don’t try people in the press,” he said.

Jury selection continues on Tuesday.

Avenatti became famous representing adult film actress Stormy Daniels in lawsuits against Trump.

He faces separate criminal trials in April for allegedly defrauding Daniels out of nearly $300,000 from a book contract, and in May for defrauding other clients and lying to the Internal Revenue Service and a bankruptcy court.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Grant McCool

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