NEW YORK — Michael Avenatti, whose rearrest last week capped a stunning downfall for the pugnacious lawyer and onetime presidential aspirant, is being held in an isolated unit of Manhattan’s federal detention center “for his own safety” ahead of his trial on extortion charges, the facility’s warden said Tuesday.
The statement by Metropolitan Correctional Center Warden Licon-Vitale came in response to a request from Avenatti’s lawyers to have him moved from the jail’s Special Housing Unit, where Avenatti has been held since Friday, to the general population.
Avenatti has been in custody since last week, when a federal judge in California revoked his bail in a separate case. He was to stand trial this week in New York, where he is accused of demanding as much as $25 million from the sports apparel giant Nike while threatening to expose alleged misconduct within the company. The arrest is expected to delay the start of his New York proceedings.
Avenatti’s attorneys say he is being kept where the Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was held while standing trial on charges including drug trafficking and murder conspiracy. Guzman is serving a life sentence at a prison in Colorado. The MCC’s Special Housing Unit, where authorities assign high-profile inmates whose safety may be at risk, also housed the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein before his apparent suicide last summer, an incident that led to multiple investigations and reassignment of the jail’s warden at the time.
“Under Mr. Avenatti’s current conditions of confinement, we cannot effectively prepare for trial and Mr. Avenatti cannot meaningfully assist in his own defense,” Avenatti’s attorney Scott Srebnick wrote in a letter to the trial judge Monday.
Avenatti rose to the national spotlight when he represented Stormy Daniels, an adult-film actress who was paid to stay quiet during the 2016 presidential campaign about her claim to have had an affair with President Donald Trump years prior — an allegation Trump denied.
Avenatti also faces charges he defrauded Daniels and other clients. He has professed innocence and pleaded not guilty.
“It is the most secure floor in the entire facility,” Srebnick said in his letter to the judge Monday. “He is in a cell reportedly once occupied by El Chapo, on a floor that houses individuals charged with terrorism offenses.”
In response, Licon-Vitale, the warden, wrote to Judge Paul Gardephe that jail administrators would make the situation workable for Avenatti for his trial needs. He insisted that the jail placement is necessary.
“Due to Mr. Avenatti’s high profile case, his notoriety, Mr. Avenatti’s placement is for his own safety,” Licon-Vitale wrote Tuesday.
Avenatti can “keep his legal materials in his cell” and can review evidence on CDs within his housing area “on request,” the warden’s letter said.
“Lastly, he will have contact legal visits and daily social telephone calls,” the letter said. “Staff will give him the opportunity to choose a consistent daily time that works for him, his family and his legal visits.”