WORTH REPEATING: Avenatti Agonistes

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Photo by BENJAMIN LOWY via New York Times

VANITY FAIR: ichael Avenatti was looking at his phone, scrolling through his Twitter mentions, when it all came crashing down. Not long before noon on March 25, he was walking toward an escalator in the newly opened 720,000-square-foot shopping mall in the middle of Hudson Yards. It’s a city within a city, purpose-built for people who don’t much like Manhattan even if they want to live here, with restaurants run by Michelin-starred chefs, shiny new high-rise apartment buildings, and headquarters for companies like WarnerMedia and Related and, as it happened, the law offices of Boies Schiller Flexner—the white-shoe firm that represents Nike.

Less than a week earlier, Avenatti had contacted the athletic-apparel giant and offered it a hard bargain. One of his clients, a youth basketball coach, was alleging that Nike had paid high-school basketball players. The allegations, on their own, would be explosive. But, weaponized by Avenatti in a media war in the midst of earnings season and March Madness, they could pose an existential threat to Nike, as he’d made clear to the company’s attorneys, according to prosecutors. “The company will die,” he told the lawyers. “Not die,” he clarified, “but they are going to incur cut after cut after cut after cut, and that’s what’s going to happen as soon as this thing becomes public.”

But Avenatti had offered them some options: If the company agreed to pay his client $1.5 million and hire him to conduct an internal investigation, he would keep the whole thing quiet. Or, for $22.5 million, “full confidentiality, we ride off into the sunset,” he offered. Otherwise, “what’s going to happen is that this is going to snowball,” he told them, “and every time we got more information, that’s going to be in the Washington Post, the New York Times, ESPN, a press conference.”
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Even though he was taking the meeting, Avenatti had a sense of how things might go with Nike’s lawyers, so he readied for battle, much as he had over the last year. He tipped off a couple of reporters that he had news, and fired off a tweet alerting the 837,000 followers he’d amassed in the past year, telling them that at 11 A.M. the following day, he would be holding a press conference to “disclose a major high school/college basketball scandal perpetrated by @Nike that we have uncovered. This criminal conduct reaches the highest levels of Nike and involves some of the biggest names in college basketball.” He watched the re-tweets and mentions and “likes” roll in on his phone as he headed up the escalator toward Blue Bottle Coffee for some caffeine.

That’s when four F.B.I. agents surrounded him. “Michael Avenatti?” one asked. “Yes,” he responded. “F.B.I.,” they told him. “You’re under arrest.” The agents pulled him aside to the entrance of a store. They took his briefcase and his cell phone before pulling a large trench coat around his shoulders so they could handcuff him discreetly. “I told them I appreciated the fact that I wasn’t treated like Roger Stone,” Avenatti told me, “and that CNN was not outside waiting for me.” One of the officers laughed. “I said of course that’s because hopefully I’ve shown your office and law enforcement a lot more respect over the last 14 months.” The agents managed to hustle him out of the mall without being noticed, a remarkable feat in the smartphone era and the year of Avenatti, and let him wait in a hidden alcove while the car that would take him to be booked pulled around. Booked at the police station across from the courthouse on Pearl Street, Avenatti was allowed one phone call, which he used to call his mother. MORE