As Stormy Daniels' lawyer Michael Avenatti has racked up some $185 million in free media coverage by CNN and MSNBC and his defense of Daniels has increasingly looked more like a politically motivated campaign against Trump and his associates, more people have begun to ask more questions about who exactly is paying for Avenatti. Last week, Clinton insider Mark Penn called out Avennati over his need to fully disclose his funding sources; now, the Associated Press is raising similar questions.
In response to mounting pressure for full disclosure after Penn's op-ed, Avenatti has bristled over questions about his source of funding, pointing to a crowdfunding site through which Daniels has now raised about a half-million dollars as the way he will be reimbursed. That crowdfunding site, says Avenatti, is proof that he's not being bankrolled by Trump's political opponents.
"But the truth is, no one knows precisely who is funding the effort," AP notes.
The more than 14,000 donations have been made mostly anonymously in amounts ranging from $10 to $5,000. Through Monday, Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, and her attorney, Michael Avenatti, raised more than $490,000 on CrowdJustice.com, a crowdfunding site dedicated to helping people raise money for legal fees. About $100,000 arrived in the last week after Avenatti released documents about payments Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, received from private companies seeking information about the president’s beliefs on various issues.
Legal experts told AP that while seeking online donations to cover legal expenses is not completely unheard of, it raises some serious "ethical concerns" because donors to the site can remain anonymous.
"It does bring up some ethical concerns in terms of who is actually giving this money and whether they will try to exert influence,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School. Levinson notes that while transparency matters, lawyers "can have partisan affiliations and I don’t think anyone thought Michael Avenatti was a Trump supporter."
"Kathleen Clark, a professor of ethics law at Washington University, echoed Levinson’s concern," AP notes. "The anonymous donations can be 'fodder for public debate on who is actually backing this lawsuit.'" Clark notes that the thousands of donors to Daniels, however, reduces the sense that someone is pulling Avenatti's strings.
AP notes that Levinson and Clark aren't the only ones voicing transparency concerns:
Among those raising questions: Fox News Channel host Laura Ingraham, who dedicated a segment to the issue last week, and the Daily Caller, a conservative website that Avenatti has threatened to sue. A column in The Hill that questioned who is financing the lawsuit prompted Avenatti to release a statement last week that “ALL fees and expenses of this case have either been funded by our client, Ms. Stephanie Clifford, or by donations from our crowdjustice.com page.”
Meanwhile, Avenatti insists that having anonymous donors isn't an issue. "We have no ethical concerns whatsoever," Avenatti told AP. "I find this fascination with who is paying my client’s legal bills to have passed the line of absurdity at this point. We have been very, very clear when answering these questions. Who is paying Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Cohen’s legal bills? Do we know?"
According to CrowdJustice, the average of the donations ($34) is consistent with similar causes, and Avenatti says only 24 of the donations have been over $1,000. He also told AP that he's never even looked at who was donating to the site.