Michael Avenatti, the seemingly omnipresent attorney for porn star Stormy Daniels, tweeted out an email Thursday he thought people might have interest in.
The email had been sent last month by Michael Cohen, the longtime personal attorney of Donald Trump, who by then was already under federal investigation. The recipient was lawyer Keith Davidson. Cohen had recently gotten a new phone, he wrote in the email, and wanted to make sure he had Davidson’s contact information in it.
“Let me know how you want to communicate,” he said.
Davidson is reportedly cooperating with authorities as they investigate Cohen’s various dealings, which makes sense, because Cohen and Davidson go back. When Daniels first cut a $130,000 deal with Cohen in 2016 to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Trump, it was Davidson who represented her. After Davidson helped ink another Trump-related deal between Karen McDougal and American Media Inc. that same year, he sent an email to Cohen asking him to call.¹ The Wall Street Journal reported in April that Davidson also struck a deal last year on behalf of what was said to be an unnamed former Playboy model alleging that Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy had impregnated her. Cohen wasn’t Broidy’s attorney, but Davidson reached right out to Cohen anyway, or so Cohen said. (The details of that case are murky, and one popular theory suggests that Trump, not Broidy, impregnated the model.)
Later, Broidy said, “Although I had not previously hired Mr. Cohen, I retained Mr. Cohen after he informed me about his prior relationship with Mr. Davidson.”
They clearly have some mutual respect for one another, too. Earlier this year, when Davidson found out New York magazine reporter Molly Redden, now at HuffPost, was working on a profile of him, his spokesman suggested she reach out to none other than Cohen for a quote on what a decent, boring guy Davidson was.
But while it feels as if the whole world has zeroed in on Cohen, Davidson has largely escaped the public eye, floating instead on the periphery of the biggest story in the world. In his natural habitat, the demimonde of celebrity tabloids, this is long how he has operated. For years, he has been a fixture of the tabloids, popping up in TMZ article after TMZ article, but his relationship with both the outlet and the industry has never been clear.
So a little over two years ago, a man named William Bastone started to poke around to see what it is, exactly, that Davidson does.
Bastone, a longtime investigative reporter and co-founder of the news website The Smoking Gun, started to investigate the Los Angeles-based attorney, whose list of past clients reads like a Rolodex of B-list Hollywood. He wanted to better understand his deep association with the tabloid industry, his tendency to find his way into celebrity sex tape negotiations and the close relationship he evidently enjoys with someone at TMZ.
Soon enough, Bastone said, “it became clear that he acted in a manner that was different from most lawyers.”
Bastone found that Davidson indeed benefited greatly from a relationship with a former TMZ employee named Mike Walters. Bastone also discovered that Davidson was engaging in some questionable lawyering of the kind not generally appreciated by the legal profession.
Everything with Bastone’s reporting was proceeding normally ― up until February, when he met Davidson at a Manhattan cafe as he drew closer to publishing the piece. The conversation itself was fine. But what happened next was, as Bastone put it, “bizarre,” “strange,” “insane,” “weird” and “crazy.”
Recently, I spoke to Bastone about the story he wound up publishing in The Smoking Gun, a 14,500-word investigation into the tabloid lawyer.
The conversation below has been edited, condensed and organized for clarity. If you have information you’d like us to know, email me at email@example.com or direct message me at @maxwellstrachan.
So when did you first start looking into Keith Davidson as a profile subject?
It was the very early part of 2016. I was looking at some notes of the guy I interviewed in March of 2016, so I was clearly noodling around before that. So, two-plus years ago.
Why did you take an interest in him that long ago?
He has a legal practice like none other. I would hear of him always having some kind of involvement in sex tapes, and people would tell me that he had had multiple matters that involved Charlie Sheen that he settled. And I had heard other things about him that got my interest. Just from being a careful reader of TMZ, I could tell that there was a very close relationship with somebody at TMZ.
I [also] knew that this was a lawyer who had already been sanctioned by the California bar. He had his license suspended for a period of time. So it became clear that he acted in a manner that was different from most lawyers.
Could you just sort of explain to me the system Davidson seemed to have set up within the larger tabloid world?
The relationship with TMZ, specifically with this Mike Walters guy, was easily the most important relationship he had in entertainment circles.² Because Walters was news editor, whatever his title was at TMZ. He was there a decade. He was basically Harvey Levin’s top deputy, and he saw every tip that came in. Anybody who called them up looking to make some money ― he knew who they were, he knew how to contact those people. So he was at a very important place in the gossip-slash-celebrity news world.
What TMZ ended up being for Davidson was a source of client referrals that came through Walters.
And it was also the place they used to kind of hype and churn stories about sex tapes. So for the longest time, it was a staple at TMZ. There was this arc of stories that would always begin ― all exclusives ― TMZ has learned that “Celebrity A” is seen in a sex tape that somebody is shopping in Los Angeles to entertainment and porn people. Then there would be a follow-up Mike Walters exclusive that would describe the action in the sex tape. Then there would be a story about how there is a bidding war for the sex tape.
For [Davidson], it was a way of getting out the fact that they had the tape. They used one another. It’s more churning of exclusives for TMZ. But also, it was tremendously valuable for Davidson because it got out the word that he had them ― a friendly reminder to the celebrity that maybe you gotta take your checkbook out because this could get a lot worse.
What did TMZ or Walters get out of that relationship? Was it just the steady stream of exclusives, or was there something else there?
Well, I mean, yeah, they get exclusives. Were any of these earth-shattering stories? I don’t know.
Keith Davidson provided legal services to Mike Walters. He provided legal services to Charles Walters, who was Mike Walters’ dad. Davidson said he may have provided legal services to a third member of the Walters family ― he wasn’t certain about that. I asked Davidson, “Did you charge them for this legal stuff?” and he said, “Well, maybe I charged his dad only for my expenses, but, well, I may have just done it for free because I was a good friend of Mike’s.” So, at the very least, there were either discounted or free legal services.
Davidson also formed a company that described itself as a marketing-and-promotion company that Walters is the president and sole officer of ― that listed Keith Davidson’s office as the address of the company. So I asked them, “What does a news editor at TMZ need to have a promotion-and-consulting company for ― that runs out of your office, Keith?” He wouldn’t talk about it, and I said, “Is that because you were paying him or his company referral fees?” and I quote him in the piece, he says, “I’m not going to lie to you, nor am I going to do anything that’s going to have a negative effect on anyone else.”³
I don’t know, it just seems like the way [Walters] comported himself at TMZ, I think you’d be fired from every legitimate journalistic outfit in the country. I understand it’s TMZ and all that, but they’re owned by Time Warner. Time Warner has standards, and I understand that they allow them to pay for stuff, but I see that thing as a firing offense at any publication.
Did you find anything to counteract the idea that Davidson didn’t have an adverse effect on anyone’s life?
[Laughs] I mean, everything he does has an adverse effect on somebody’s life! I’m sure if you spoke to Charlie Sheen about him, Charlie Sheen thinks he’s had an incredibly adverse effect on his life, as does Kanye West and anybody who’s had to write a check for a videotape that was on a laptop that was stolen.
The key to his business has always been the fact that he has people ― Walters being one, Kevin Blatt being another, this woman Gina Rodriguez out in L.A. being one ― being the steerers for him, the sources of business referrals. That’s the key. If you take those people away, then how does anyone find him?
So you have a porn actress or an escort who has something to say about Tiger Woods or Charlie Sheen, well, she’s not necessarily going to know, “Oh, I should reach out to Keith Davidson.” But she might know somebody, another actress or something, who says, “Oh, you should talk to Gina Rodriguez, she’s a former porn actress and she does stuff with the tabloids and she sells stories to TMZ and the Enquirer and Radar and all these places.” Before you know it, Gina Rodriguez is steering, if there’s a legal claim, right to Keith Davidson to handle that end of the business.
Same thing with Kevin Blatt. If you found yourself in possession of a sex tape and you went on Google and you wrote “sex tape broker” or “Hollywood sex tape,” he’d be the first thing that came up, and he had a many-, many-years relationship with Davidson.
The same thing with Walters at TMZ. When the guy who possessed three of the Hulk Hogan sex tapes contacted TMZ to do a deal to show them a little bit of the sex tapes, Walters immediately steered him toward Davidson to try to monetize the whole tapes ― the same way Walters steered an employee of the Betty Ford clinic who had gotten into a confrontation with Lindsay Lohan. He directed her right to Keith Davidson, so he was getting these referrals from a variety of different places.
How does he end up with Stormy Daniels? He gets Stormy Daniels through Gina Rodriguez, who was once married to a male porn actor who used to perform with Stormy Daniels. So when she needed someone, she knew, “Oh, Gina Rodriguez is a person who can help you navigate the tabloid-slash-legal world.”
When Karen McDougal wants to talk to someone about her relationship with Donald Trump, she bounces it off of a friend of hers who knows a guy, and the guy he knows happens to be an associate of Keith Davidson’s.
So he has people who just deliver clients to him, and those people get rewarded for it. I mean Blatt, Rodriguez, the people who referred McDougal have all gotten pieces of the action. They’re not just doing it to be nice. They end up getting paid.
Michael Cohen is a bit part in this story, but they have such an amicable relationship and so often find themselves on each side of the table. What are your thoughts there?
I mean, I know that Michael Cohen had nothing to do with Davidson’s representation of Stormy Daniels. There was no delivering her as a client. I could see no evidence that there was a conspiracy going on there.
Ditto with McDougal, because I know how McDougal ended up as a client of his, and how Stormy Daniels became a client of his. Now the question of, was there something else going on here where the deals that were struck ― that Davidson sold them out and basically was two-timing them? You know, I think that’s still a little unclear, frankly. Davidson’s contention was that both of them were suffering from seller’s remorse. [Daniels] got 130 grand and McDougal got 150 grand, both prior to Election Day, and now his contention was the two of them were upset because they now think they didn’t get what they could have gotten monetarily. That was not a complaint of theirs at the time and only surfaces after they realize, “Oh, shit, Donald Trump is the fucking president now.”
The McDougal settlement is through AMI and Pecker and Dylan Howard, but obviously Cohen is floating on the periphery of that, and he was directly involved in the Stormy Daniels thing, so I think that in terms of whether there was collusion, as it were, on those, the jury’s out. But Cohen did steer this guy, Chuck LaBella, into Davidson ―⁴
And I think he steered the Playboy model in the Broidy ―⁵
That’s unclear. The way that Broidy tells it is that Broidy gets contacted by Cohen, who had been contacted by Davidson, and Cohen tells Broidy, “Well, I’ve dealt with this guy before, so maybe I can represent you and we can hash it out.” I don’t think it’s clear as to really what happened there.
So, this Playmate found her way to Davidson, and Davidson’s first move was to call Cohen because ― why? That’s a little unclear. Because he knew Broidy was a big-wig Republican? I don’t know. Of all of them, I think that one is the most interesting.
In the piece, you said that Davidson “engaged in the kind of activities that result in severe disciplinary sanctions.” What in particular stood out about his behavior?
I’d say his representation of the individuals who were his clients in the Hulk Hogan sex tape case is very, very, very damaging.⁶
These are two individuals, a guy by the name of Matt Loyd and a woman by the name of Lori Burbridge. Loyd’s account of his dealings with Davidson are through a series of interviews that I did, and Burbridge’s accounts of her dealings with Davidson are through FBI interviews and also a lengthy 100-page-plus deposition of her by the Tampa police and state prosecutor’s office. She talks about Davidson and Loyd talks about Davidson directing them to lie, to fabricate stories about how they came into possession of the sex tapes. Those were the two core things — both of them said they were directed to lie because that was the way they were going to get a deal done.
For instance, they had to claim that they were the ones that had provided Gawker with the excerpt from one of the sex tapes, and they had to lie about that because if they didn’t claim responsibility, it left open the possibility that the person who did provide it to Gawker might go and provide it to somebody else, and that’s the last thing Hogan wanted to do ― pay somebody $300,000 and then have all the same sex tapes being distributed by another party who had them. So they had to create this lie that they pushed, and they’re both on the record about the story that he directed them to create about how they obtained the tapes. That’s some pretty crazy stuff.
I wanted to ask you a bit about your interactions with Davidson during the piece.
Well, we had a series of interviews. I did not want to sit in a room with him with my 2 feet of files and documents because I was referring to emails and stuff like that. I didn’t want him to have any idea where I got a lot of this stuff from. So we did six hours or so over the phone in maybe two or three conversations, and then I said, “When I’m done with the conversations, we’ll sit down and have a face-to-face so you can see who I am.”
That was the first meeting I had with him, and that was basically his attempt to try to ― just want to be careful here ― he was making his argument for why perhaps there were other stories I should be pursuing besides the one about him.
So, you know, I told him: “I’m writing the story about you. I’m not horse trading here for anything else you might want to offer or something like that.” He made it very clear what areas of the interview he was concerned about. Meaning I found out things that he knew were problematic and he was clearly concerned that they were going to cause a problem with the bar association. He made the pitch for like, “Well, do you have to include that?” and I’m like, “Uh, yeah. I’m not leaving anything out.”
So we left, and I’m writing the piece, and he contacts me, and he says he wants to have another conversation before I finish the story, and I said, “Well, OK, I’m free now. Do you want to do it now?” and he’s like, “No, no, I want to do it in person.” And I said, “Are you in New York?” And he said, “No, I’m in Los Angeles, and I said, “What, are you going to fly across the country to do this thing?” and he said, “Well, I can’t do it over the phone.” I said, “I’m not going to have you come back round trip to have some conversation with me.” And he said, “Oh, it’s no problem. It’s no problem.”
So I was like: “Alright, whatever. If you want to come here. I told you this story is happening, so if you’re going to come back and we’re going to have a repeat of our last meeting, it’s going to be a waste of our time.” And he said, “No, no, no, I want to talk to you just in person. Just don’t want to do it on the phone.”
We met on a Sunday morning at a Le Pain Quotidien on Bleecker Street. He arrives. He’s looking all glum and gives me the line: “While you’ve been investigating me, I’ve been investigating you.”
I’m like, Oh, this is going to be good. Where is this going? Then he fishes out this document from his roller bag and he says he has gathered up this information. He wanted to show it to me, and he wanted to let me know what’s out there and what’s in the piece is exactly what happened.⁷ He hands me over this two-page document. I then read this insane sort of intelligence report about me and my website and my criminal connections and my involvement in an international narcotics trafficking ring.
What did you think when you saw the document?
I was ― I read it and I said, “I give you permission to distribute this and publish it wherever you want.” And I said I’d like to publish it alongside the story. And he said, “No, no, no, no, no. That’s why I’m bringing this to your attention.” I said, “Well, what do you mean? You’re accusing me of being involved in a narcotics trafficking conspiracy.”
“Oh, no, no, I just wanted to just let you know what’s out there, like what my private investigator found out.” I said: “I’m giving you permission to publish that. You can give it to any reporter you want. Any journal. Anybody you know, you can distribute it, disseminate it, publish it, but I’d really like to publish it alongside the story I’m going to do about you. I’ll put it somewhere in the first four to five graphs, I’ll make a reference to it.”
“Oh no, no, no, no, no. I’m not looking to distribute them.”
So I said, “Well, what are you doing?” And I said to him, “This, you and me here at this table, is feeling a little extortion-y to me.” “Oh no, no, no, no, no. That’s not what it’s meant to be.” I said, “So you came all the way across the country and you’re going to fly all the way back today to tell me that in conjunction with your unnamed private investigator, you developed this information about me being involved in a narcotics trafficking ring?”
I told him: “That’s ludicrous. You know it’s ludicrous, and I just don’t understand what the fuck” — I was a little pissed off — “I just don’t understand what the game is here. Like, what you think’s going to happen. Like, is this your move to muscle me into not publishing?”
“No, no, no. I just want to give you the opportunity to look at it.”
At one point, I said: “You know, Keith, I know you’ve looked into my background. You’ve determined what I’ve written about, where I’ve worked, what my rep is. I’ve written about lots and lots of bad people, and I’ve done it for 30 years. I covered organized crime in New York for 12 years. I’ve written about every strain of narcotics traffickers, corrupt politicians, everything you can think of.”
And I said, “You’re the guy, you’re the one person who dug up all this shit about me in a period of just a few days.” I said, “I’ve written stories that have put people in prison, and yet nobody found out about me and this narcotics trafficking conspiracy. I’ve written about mobsters ― I mean every wise guy in New York. But no one came forward to say, ‘Oh, he’s involved with Italian organized crime and narcotics trafficking.’ Don’t you think that’s a little fucked up?”
“Oh no, no, no, no. I’m not trying to pressure you or intimidate you.” And I basically told him: “We have anything else? Is there anything else that you want to talk to me about? And he said no, that was it, and I got up and left him.
But I went right to my office and wrote a memo to the files about what had just transpired because my head was kind of swimming. I couldn’t quite figure out what the end game was. I just thought it was bizarre. It was so strange, and then as I write in the piece it did not stop that Sunday.
The following Tuesday, some person writes an email to a lawyer at the Manhattan law firm that incorporated our parent company. They just formed our company. They haven’t done any legal work for us, but if you went and checked our incorporation papers you would see the name of this law firm. They sent this email to one of the partners there and basically make the same allegations. I just thought it was insane. And then some guy calls an hour after they receive this email and is trying to get a conversation with one of the lawyers about me and my criminality and the site’s involvement in narcotics conspiracies.
It was weird. It’s just ― it’s crazy. And when he pulled this, the email and then phone call, I wrote him. I said: “What the frick is going on? What are you doing with these calls and these emails from these people? These proxies of yours?” Never responded, and then his spokesman called me back, and I said, “I want you to answer why he’s spreading this fucking ludicrous misinformation about me and my site.” And the spokesman claimed to not know anything about it, so I didn’t push it past there.
I just thought it was ― it just seemed like it was the ― like they were the acts of a really desperate person, which were crazy. And coming from a lawyer!
Have you heard from Davidson or any of his associates since you published the piece?
Nope. I think he’s …
Busy enough now?
He’s under siege! He’s radioactive. I mean it’s ― you know, I can’t imagine this is good for his business. Who wants to be hiring him right now? I’m sure it’s of wildly great concern to him because he’s just ― he’s taken a battering.
And geez, could you imagine if actually there are audiotapes of him and Cohen?⁸
¹ McDougal’s legal team reached an agreement with American Media Inc. last month to let McDougal out of her contract, allowing her to speak freely about her alleged relationship with Trump.
² Walters left TMZ a little over a year ago following a confrontation with founder Harvey Levin. He has since started a competitor, The Blast.
³ The quote as presented in The Smoking Gun’s piece: “One, I don’t want to lie to you. And two, I don’t want to ever have an adverse effect on someone else’s life.”
⁴ Davidson told CNN days after The Smoking Gun’s investigation was published that Cohen had referred client Chuck LaBella to him. LaBella, a Trump associate who was a producer on NBC’s “The Apprentice,” said he never hired or met Davidson. But CNN reported Davidson wrote an email to actor Tom Arnold’s lawyer, Marty Singer, after Arnold publicly stated that LaBella had “the dirt” on Trump.
⁵ On April 13, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cohen and Davidson negotiated a $1.6 million deal related to Republican National Committee deputy finance chairman Elliott Broidy’s affair with an undisclosed Playboy Playmate.
⁶ In 2012, Davidson contacted Hulk Hogan’s lawyer David Houston, claiming that his clients were in possession of sex tapes involving the former wrestler. The negotiations would eventually lead to investigations by the FBI and the Tampa Police Department.
⁷ The memo, as described by The Smoking Gun: “The document ― which had several redactions at the top of its opening page ― made a series of stunning claims that were purportedly backed up by intelligence reports. The Smoking Gun and this reporter, the memo stated, were connected to an international narcotics distribution ring overseen by an organized crime family in Italy. Aiding in these illicit endeavors, the memo alleged, was an attorney at the New York law firm which incorporated The Smoking Gun’s parent company. The web site was some kind of an elaborate front operation, according to the document Davidson eventually returned to his manila folder.”
⁸ CNN reported last month that the FBI has seized recordings Cohen made during his conversations with Davidson during a recent raid.
If you have information you’d like us to know, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message me at @maxwellstrachan.