If you sue a billionaire president, can crowdfunding level the legal playing field?

Sunday , April 15, 2018 - 9:35 AM

Frances Stead Sellers

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

Porn star Stormy Daniels wants help with legal expenses after filing a lawsuit against President Donald Trump - costs that are likely to climb to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

She put out a plea on a fundraising website and brought in more than $310,000 in mostly small donations in about a month.

Successful online drives such as Daniels’ do not necessarily speak to the merits of the accuser’s case. But they say a lot about the media strategies of their high-profile legal teams and their ability to exploit a new tool - crowdfunding - to support expensive legal challenges.

Daniels, who has a large fan following on internet porn sites, took on a new lawyer in February. Michael Avenatti, her brash Los Angeles attorney, has done nonstop television appearances about her case, dangling teasers of soon-to-come revelations. He promoted Daniels in an interview on CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” which offered few new facts but attracted 22 million viewers, a near-record audience. The adult actress is scheduled to appear next week on “The View” - in apparent defiance of a contested hush agreement with Trump, whose attorneys are seeking to charge her $1 million for each violation.

Daniels-related media blasts have kept cash rolling in - about $75,000 a week in small donations.

“The more your case is in the news, the more likely you are to raise money around it,” said Lisa Bloom, a women’s rights attorney who has represented Trump accusers and occasionally used crowdfunding to help clients defray legal costs.

Bloom counts herself among the 9,700 who have donated to Daniels’ cause, and she believes Avenatti “is doing a magnificent job getting the court of public opinion on Stormy’s side.”

Along with credit cards, Daniels appears to have captured the public’s imagination. Daniels’ appeal on CrowdJustice.com provides a space for donor comments, many of them offering rallying cries along with donations often in the $10 to $50 range. “Sheila,” who recently pledged $25, posted, “C’mon folks, this fund-raiser has been stagnating a bit! ... let’s go!”

Things did not go so well for Summer Zervos, a little-known restaurant hostess and the first of Trump’s female accusers to file suit against him.

Zervos accused Trump of defamation in January 2017 for denying her allegations of sexual assault and calling her and other accusers untruthful in a torrent of tweets and campaign trail commentary that, she alleges, hurt her financially and emotionally.

Her attorneys, who have kept Zervos tightly under wraps, organized an appeal on CrowdRise.com, and funds dribbled in for several months until the site changed its terms of service in November, The inactive page shows that Zervos raised just $13,000, or about 3 percent of a $500,000 goal.

Her case has been mired in arcane legal challenges. A long-awaited legal victory in March allowed her suit to proceed to trial, but the president’s lawyers moved quickly to appeal. Zervos faced another apparent setback when feminist attorney Gloria Allred withdrew without explanation, leaving the case to her former co-counsel, Mariann Meier Wang. The New York trial lawyer has not said whether she will revive the crowdfunding effort.

Allred, who promoted Zervos’ fundraising on her own site, made a number of media appearances focused on the case. But unlike Daniels, whose edgy tweets to critics only draw more attention, Zervos herself is silent on social media.

“The reason people give is they care about the issues,” said Julia Salasky, who launched CrowdJustice in the United States in early 2017 as the first site geared specifically toward legal issues, in much the way Kickstarter and GoFundMe have been used for close to a decade to solicit help for entrepreneurs or patients facing mounting medical bills. Since then, Salasky said, the for-profit site has raised nearly $9 million, with an average donation of $50. (CrowdJustice charges about 3 percent in processing fees and retains an additional 5 percent.)

The site’s first U.S. case, Salasky said, took on the Trump administration’s attempt to enforce an entry ban. Aziz v. Trump was brought by the Legal Aid Justice Center on behalf of visa holders and permanent residents detained at Washington Dulles International Airport, including the Aziz brothers, who were deported.

The response was immediate. “We raised $36,000,” said Mary Bauer, the center’s executive director.

Salasky said the process helps level the legal playing field by “democratizing access to justice.”

That mission resonates with plaintiffs’ lawyers such as Bloom, Allred’s daughter, who say that financial support is critical for many of the cases they take on.

“It’s no secret that wealth tips the scales of justice in favor of the wealthy,” said Bloom, who recently called for a “rich patriot” to come forward and indemnify Trump accusers “for fees and penalties they might incur if they speak.”

Former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal has not said how she will pay her legal fees. McDougal, who alleges she had an affair with Trump, is suing National Enquirer publisher AMI to invalidate a nondisclosure agreement that she said prevented her from speaking about the alleged affair.

Fundraising for Zervos was a first for Allred. “I’ve been doing sexual harassment cases for 42 years, and we have never sought funding for any of those cases,” the women’s rights attorney told The Washington Post in January. The reason for this change? “We’ve never sued the president of the United States previously,” she said.

Although the CrowdRise.com appeal for Zervos became inactive last year, money also came in from personal checks and PayPal, Allred said, totaling about $30,000 in January, a year after the suit was filed. That, she said, fell far short of the cost of depositions, expert witnesses and other fees that, she estimated, could reach “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Wang wrote in a email that Allred’s firm has “transferred the outstanding litigation funds to my firm’s attorney trust account.” She declined to comment on whether she would work pro bono, as Allred did.

CrowdRise was acquired in 2017 by GoFundMe, which has had some recent successes around legal issues. Time’s Up, which helps defray costs associated with sexual misconduct, raised $21.5 million, the largest campaign in GoFundMe history. A fundraiser for fired deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe raised more than $500,000 in days, according to communications director Bobby Whithorne.

Zervos donors such as Alicia Ogawa, who is based in New York, and Julia Ednie, of Kirkland, Washington, said they quickly contributed to Zervos’ cause.

“I thought that with Gloria Allred representing her, Summer Zervos may have a chance of being heard and taken seriously,” said Ednie, a $50 donor.

She was taken aback by Allred’s surprise withdrawal from the case. But she believes Zervos will be “very well represented” by Wang, who has a strong record in civil rights litigation, including sexual assault.

Wang is not known, though, for the relentless use of the airwaves that has been Avenatti’s trademark.

He fought Daniels’ case in the court of public opinion from the start: He doles out intriguing tidbits, such as a photo of Daniels undergoing a polygraph in 2011, that may not be admissible in court; he puts a positive spin on apparent setbacks, such as a judge’s decision not to allow an expedited deposition of Trump; and he maintains suspense with Twitter updates delivered like incremental clues in a seamy crime novel.

A recent cliffhanger is the identity of the man Daniels claimed on “60 Minutes” threatened her and her infant daughter in Las Vegas in 2011, after she tried to sell the story of her alleged sexual encounter with Trump. Avenatti tweeted a photo of Daniels pouring over sketches with Lois Gibson, dubbed “the world’s most successful forensic artist” by Guinness World Records.

At least in terms of fundraising, Avenatti’s aggressive media tactics seem to pay off.

There has been “deafening silence from the rich patriots” she called on, Bloom says. But on Daniels’s CrowdJustice site, the dollars keep ticking upward.

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