A New York City federal court judge on Tuesday granted disgraced attorney Michael Avenatti's wish to represent himself in the trial over whether he stole money from adult film star Stormy Daniels. The California lawyer had tried earlier in the day to interrupt the proceedings to ask the judge to consider the change.
U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman granted Avenatti's request at his Manhattan trial on wire fraud and aggravated identity theft charges after he cited a "breakdown" with his lawyers over trial strategy, particularly on how to question a former longtime office worker for Avenatti who was testifying at the trial by video.
Daniels was expected to take the witness stand at the trial as early as Wednesday.
Furman rejected Avenatti’s attempts earlier in the day to delay the proceedings against Avenatti and said the right to self-representation is diminished once a trial begins.
But the judge then said he would give Avenatti time during the lunch break, when the change was granted. Avenatti would immediately begin representing himself in the ongoing trial.
Avenatti, 50, is accused of stealing nearly $300,000 of the $800,000 advance paid to Daniels for her 2018 book "Full Disclosure." Avenatti represented Daniels in 2018 in lawsuits against former President Trump.
Avenatti has maintained his innocence. Tuesday was only the second day of official proceedings in the case after Monday’s opening statements.
When Avenatti stood up on Tuesday morning in an effort to speak about representing himself, Furman cut him off.
"Mr. Avenatti, please have a seat," Furman directed. "I’m not taking it up right now."
After defense lawyers asked for a brief adjournment to address the issue, the judge said, "I'm not going to waste the jury's time. It's not happening now."
When the jury broke for lunch, Furman said Avenatti's right to represent himself was "sharply curtailed" once his trial began. The judge said he would be required to weigh the status of the proceeding and the effect a change in representation would have on it if Avenatti formally requested to represent himself.
The judge said that if Avenatti chose to do so, he would not take up the issue until the end of the day.
The New York City trial is the third against Avenatti in two years.
In early 2020, Avenatti was convicted of trying to extort up to $25 million from sportswear giant Nike by threatening to tarnish the company's reputation if it didn't meet his demands. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. At that trial, he did not testify and was represented by lawyers.
Last year, he represented himself in a California federal court against criminal charges that he cheated clients of millions of dollars, and the proceedings ended in a mistrial.
Avenatti became known nationally when he represented Daniels in 2018. Daniels had received $130,000 shortly before the 2016 presidential election to remain silent about her claims that she'd had a sexual tryst with Trump a decade earlier. Trump has denied that it happened.
In opening statements Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Rohrbach told jurors that Avenatti lied repeatedly to steal nearly $300,000 from Daniels. "This is a case about a lawyer who stole from his client, a lawyer who lied to cover up his scheme," Rohrbach said. "That lawyer is the defendant Michael Avenatti."
Meanwhile, then-defense attorney Andrew Dalack said Avenatti had an agreement with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, to share proceeds of any book deal.
Dalack said Avenatti had loaned Daniels hundreds of thousands of dollars while he represented her.
A prosecution witness, Judy Regnier, testified Tuesday that she did not believe Avenatti had sent any of his law firm's money to Daniels between July 2018 and February 2019.
Regnier, who worked as a paralegal and office manager for Avenatti for about 11 years, said the firm's finances were in bad shape during that span.
"I was checking bank accounts to see if there were enough funds to make it through the week, or the day," she said.
Fox Business' Lee Ross and Fox News' Marta Dhanis contributed to this report, as well as The Associated Press.