"I have pled not guilty for one reason – because I am not guilty," Avenatti told the socially-distanced jury. He portrayed himself as a legal avenger who took on the rich and powerful on behalf of the meek.
"Let me be clear: no crime was committed by me and I never intended to steal or defraud any client of any money at all," he said.
Avenatti is accused of stealing millions of settlement dollars from clients who had hired him to help litigate their legal claims.
During his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Sagel highlighted Avenatti’s former clients including a paraplegic who had agreed to a $4 million settlement. That client "trusted [Avenatti] to get the best outcome for him," Sagel said.
But it’s alleged that Avenatti withheld much of the money in that case and the others.
"All of them trusted Michael Avenatti," Sagel told the jury. "The defendant violated their trust. The defendant stole their money."
The government alleges Avenatti lied to his clients about the real status of the settlement funds which were deposited into bank accounts he could access and then withdrew the money to finance his own luxurious lifestyle.
Avenatti told the jury he will present evidence showing the full flow of money which includes reimbursement for expenses tied to his legal work.
"We were entitled to be paid," Avenatti said in explaining how he felt the only way to win seven-figure settlements was to spend money on experts, consultants, court documents and other matters. He also claimed to have covered huge medical and housing costs.
"We advanced enormous amounts of money to these clients," he said.
Up until late Tuesday, it was assumed that lawyer Dean Steward would deliver the opening statement on Avenatti’s behalf. But it was then that the man who flirted with a 2020 presidential run announced his decision to defend himself.
Before entering the courthouse Wednesday, Avenatti explained to Fox News why he wanted to defend himself contrary to conventional legal wisdom.
"I’m pro se because I want the truth to be known," he said.
While lacking criminal court experience, Avenatti appeared comfortable in front of the jury and drew upon his many years of civil litigation to deliver a coherent opener.
"This case didn’t start with a crime. It started with a target," Avenatti told the jury.
U.S. District Court Judge James Selna quickly jumped in, saying, "Mr. Avenatti, tell the jury what you are going to prove."
Without missing a beat, Avenatti confidently turned back to the jurors, adding, "and the evidence will show that."
The trial is expected to go into mid-August. The 10 fraud charges each carry a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
Earlier this month in New York, Avenatti was sentenced to 2 ½ years behind bars for attempting to extort shoe giant Nike. He faces another fraud trial later this year and yet another next year in which Avenatti is accused of taking money from his most famous client, Stormy Daniels.