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Once a Trump Foil, Michael Avenatti Says Jail Treatment Was Payback

Michael Avenatti, who rose to prominence as the lawyer representing a pornographic film actress in lawsuits against former President Donald J. Trump and was later convicted of trying to extort Nike, is seeking millions of dollars in compensation for harsh jail conditions that he says were retaliation for his outspoken criticism of Mr. Trump.

Mr. Avenatti’s claims come just weeks before he faces trial in Manhattan in another criminal case, on charges that he stole about $300,000 from Stormy Daniels, the actress, who was at the center of a scandal during Mr. Trump’s first presidential campaign. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

Mr. Avenatti’s lawyers said he was seeking the compensation under the Federal Tort Claims Act, a law that will allow him to sue the government if the claim is not settled within six months.

“They treated him very differently than anybody else in prison,” one of his lawyers, Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, said on Thursday. “Once they had him in custody, they held him in a unit for violent criminals and terrorists.”

Mr. Avenatti, 50, was arrested and jailed in January 2020 after prosecutors said he had violated the terms of his bail in a fraud case he faced in California. Mr. Avenatti said in his claim that he had initially been held in solitary confinement in the Santa Ana Jail in Orange County and had then been taken to Manhattan and detained at the now-closed Metropolitan Correctional Center, much of that time in its most secure wing, 10 South.

Traditionally, 10 South was used to hold detainees charged with terrorism and other notorious crimes. Its most notable recent occupant was Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo.

“To take a man who has lived for decades without any criminal convictions, no history of violence,” Mr. Avenatti said in a phone interview with one of his lawyers on the line, “and within 72 hours put him under these conditions where he is housed in the most restrictive, diabolical unit in the entire United States for pretrial detainees, is unheard-of.”

Mr. Avenatti’s claim, a copy of which was provided to The New York Times by his lawyers, says that while he was in detention, he spent about 94 days in solitary confinement or under locked-down status. “For the vast majority of that time period, I was in 10 South,” he said in the interview.

Last July, when he was sentenced to two and a half years in the Nike case, Judge Paul G. Gardephe of Federal District Court observed that Mr. Avenatti had been held “in horrific conditions at the M.C.C. for more than three months, in solitary confinement for much of the time and in lockdown for nearly all of it; first, because a loaded handgun had been smuggled by someone into the facility, and later because of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“Conditions were terrible,” the judge added. “It’s hard to believe they could occur in the United States of America.”

Mr. Avenatti was released from jail in late April 2020 and has been held in home confinement in California ever since, another of his lawyers, Daniel McGuinness, said.

Mr. Avenatti said in the papers that while he was at the M.C.C., he had been prohibited from speaking with relatives or friends, he had been provided no access to fresh air or recreation, temperatures at night had been frigid, and he had been permitted to see the sky only once.

When he asked for reading material, he said in his claim, he was initially refused and was then provided one book: “Trump: The Art of the Deal.”

Mr. Avenatti says in the claim that the month after he was detained, a senior jail employee escorted him from a legal visit to his cell and asked if he understood why he was being housed in 10 South.

According to Mr. Avenatti’s claim, “The employee explained that the orders came from the attorney general” — William P. Barr at the time.

Mr. Barr, asked for comment on Mr. Avenatti’s claims, responded with one word: “Ridiculous.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

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