In the months before he sued President Donald Trump, Michael Avenatti, the attorney representing pornographic film actress Stephanie Clifford, served as the public face of an ambitious bid to construct a marijuana cultivation facility in the California desert.
Since Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels, filed suit against President Trump in March 2018, Avenatti has used cable news to argue her case and critique the White House.
But starting at least in March 2017, before Avenatti took Clifford’s case, he represented a client that has remained out of the national limelight.
Emails, video and planning documents reviewed by The Desert Sun show the attorney spent much of 2017 acting as the representative of a proposed indoor cannabis farm and processing plant in Desert Hot Springs, a small city in Southern California that has marketed itself as a mecca for marijuana companies.
In 2017, the California cannabis industry was approaching a turning point. The state was poised to expand from medicinal marijuana to a fully legal adult-use market on January 1, 2018, and marijuana entrepreneurs were eager to capitalize on the growing consumer base by obtaining city approvals, a prerequisite for a temporary state license.
Plans for the project Avenatti represented, Desert Harvest Development LLC, included 1.5 million square feet of cannabis cultivation space, plus room for restaurants, retail and a possible marijuana dispensary. A city staff report estimated the development would employ 520 people once fully developed and generate more than $14 million in marijuana tax revenue a year.
Desert Harvest’s plans received city approval in November 2017, but to date, the company has not purchased a 65-acre parcel of land pegged for the complex. Avenatti wrote in an email to The Desert Sun that the company will purchase the land shortly and still intends to move forward with the development.
In order to reconstruct the quest to build Desert Harvest, The Desert Sun drew from more than 1,000 emails obtained from Desert Hot Springs through a California Public Records Act request as well as publicly-available meeting records.
Avenatti is copied on more than 100 emails included in the records, but only wrote directly to city officials staff in four email threads. During the other exchanges, Avenatti is a bystander, allowing the local planning firm representing Desert Harvest, MSA Consulting Inc., to take the lead in communications with city personnel.
The documents do not explain the nature of Avenatti’s business relationship with Desert Harvest. In emails to The Desert Sun, Avenatti said he is the project’s outside legal counsel and has no interest in the project.
“I represent over a 100 other corporate clients in various fields and this is no different,” he wrote.
Records show Avenatti attended meetings and signed a permit application for Desert Harvest.