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Ohtani says he's cooperating with investigators. Yasiel Puig offers a cautionary tale

Dodgers Shohei Ohtani walks back into he dugout after striking out against the Angels in the first inning at Angels Stadium on Tuesday March 26, 2024. Right, former Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, right, and his agent Lisette Carnet, left, at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday February 11, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times, Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers Shohei Ohtani, left, walks back into the dugout in 2024. Right, former Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig at a news conference in 2023. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times, Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The baseball star went into his first conversation with federal investigators assured he was "not a target."

The lead prosecutor on a sprawling sports betting case, Assistant U.S. Atty. Jeff Mitchell, told the player's attorney that he didn't believe it was a federal crime to make payments to an illegal bookmaker, as the player was suspected of doing. Investigators were after "an unlawful sports gambling organization," Mitchell said, according to a court declaration reviewed by The Times.

In other words: The feds wanted the bookies — not the bettors.

Despite those assurances, the player — former Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig — is currently staring down two federal charges for obstruction of justice and making false statements, after allegedly lying during his initial conversation with Mitchell.

The highly contentious case, involving a one-count plea deal Puig accepted and then backed out of, is still pending. But it is already a warning for other professional sports players — including Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani, a current Dodger who now finds himself in the middle of a betting scandal.

Read more: Photos: Opening Day 2024 at Dodger Stadium

Puig's case shows how witnesses in federal investigations can become targets themselves if they are suspected of veering from the truth, and how foreign athletes — accustomed to other people talking, handling finances and negotiating unfamiliar cultural situations for them — can face additional pitfalls within the U.S. legal system.

Ohtani, speaking Monday for the first time, reiterated his claim from last week that his former interpreter and close friend Ippei Mizuhara had stolen millions of dollars from him to pay off illegal gambling debts, including by allegedly accessing Ohtani's financial accounts behind his back.

Without offering specifics, Ohtani also said he and his attorneys have reached out to law enforcement authorities in the matter, with whom he intends to fully cooperate.

According to legal experts, that's the right move for someone who is a victim.

"If that's his story and he's sticking to it, he better hope and pray that's the truth," said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who now has a white-collar criminal defense practice.

Weinstein and others also advised the two-way star from Japan to proceed cautiously, whether he is a target of investigators or not.

Read more: The mysterious life — and questionable claims — of Shohei Ohtani's interpreter

Ohtani's explanation of what happened directly contradicts a narrative Mizuhara had been pushing until very recently, which was that Ohtani had acted as a concerned friend and paid off the debts on Mizuhara's behalf. Mizuhara allegedly told that version once to ESPN and again to the entire Dodgers team during a recent meeting also attended by team officials and Ohtani.

Ohtani said Monday that he didn't understand what was being said at the meeting, but became suspicious, started questioning Mizuhara and his own representatives and discovered the interpreter had allegedly been stealing from him and lying about it.

Whatever the case, Ohtani should clear up any inconsistencies in his account and be crystal clear about the facts before he takes them from the press room into any formal conversations with investigators, legal experts said.

"What happened with Puig is a cautionary tale for everyone, whenever they are going to go and talk to law enforcement," Weinstein said.

Ohtani "should not be making any other statements to the public — to anybody, not even somebody he thinks is his friend," Weinstein said. "He should be sitting down with his lawyers and spending a lot of time with his lawyers and his accountants and his representatives going over his financial statements, what he knew, who had access to his accounts."

Keri Axel, one of Puig's current attorneys, said Puig's experience was indeed instructive for other players, especially those who — like Puig and Ohtani — speak little English and are used to relying on others.

"The Ohtani situation demonstrates that many athletes — particularly from other countries — rely heavily on advisers and intermediaries, and are disconnected with American culture and its legal system, while at the same time being exploited for easy headlines and their mistakes are put under a microscope," Axel said. "That’s exactly what happened with Puig."

'I no said nothing, I not talking'

In March 2022, according to court records, Puig allegedly sent a recorded message to a friend via WhatsApp.

"I no said nothing, I not talking," the Cuban player said in English, of his conversation with prosecutors two months prior. "I said that I only know [Agent 1] from baseball."

According to prosecutors, it was the latest piece of evidence that Puig — who played for the Dodgers between 2013 and 2018 — had lied to them.

"Agent 1" is the moniker federal prosecutors have given to a former collegiate baseball player turned private baseball coach who they alleged served as Puig's connection to the "Nix Gambling Business," as they called the illicit operation, after its leader Wayne Nix.

Agent 1 is Donny Kadokawa, according to multiple sources familiar with the case but not authorized to speak on behalf of law enforcement. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles declined to comment. An attorney for Kadokawa — who has pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns — declined to comment.

By the time prosecutors spoke with Puig in January 2022, they were building out a roster of witnesses. They had zeroed in on him in part because they knew that two cashiers' checks drawn on his accounts had been sent to a "significant client of the Nix Gambling Business," according to Mitchell's declaration.

During the conversation, prosecutors believed Puig was lying about his interactions with the Nix organization, and warned one of his attorneys that what he was saying didn't match the evidence they already had.

Read more: How the saga of Shohei Ohtani and his interpreter unfolded — and why it’s not over

Puig's current attorneys say he hadn't been given any information that would have allowed him to prepare for the conversation, which was held over a video link, and didn't have his own interpreter present.

In May 2022, prosecutors sent Puig a "target letter," informing him that he had become a focus of their investigation. In addition to the checks, prosecutors had obtained a trove of text messages from Agent 1, who court records show was cooperating with their investigation.

That July, Puig signed a deal with prosecutors in which he agreed to plead guilty to one count of making false statements and prosecutors agreed not to pursue a more serious charge of obstruction of justice.

However, that November, Puig refused to plead guilty, saying he hadn't lied and was innocent of the charge against him. Prosecutors responded by refiling their indictment against Puig, this time adding the obstruction charge.

They alleged Puig had received assistance from Agent 1 in placing "at least 899 bets on sporting events" over a five-month period in 2019, and had made $200,000 in payments, via cashiers' checks, directly to the other Nix client, who was owed that amount by the Nix operation.

Prosecutors said Puig was warned that lying to them was a crime and that he understood their questions.

Puig's attorneys have fought back, arguing the whole case was a matter of miscommunication — or worse, entrapment. They've denounced the prosecution as unfair, culturally tone-deaf, racially biased and unnecessary. They've said Puig suffers from a number of cognitive disabilities — including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder — that prosecutors failed to take into account.

Puig "has had very limited formal education, receiving the equivalent of only a third-grade education before he was sent to Cuba's government-run Baseball Academy at the age of nine," his attorneys wrote in one filing.

Those arguments haven't moved the needle much in court to date, but another has.

Puig's attorneys successfully challenged prosecutors' use of his earlier plea deal as evidence against him in the case moving forward. Prosecutors have since appealed that decision to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, calling it "an issue of exceptional importance" that, if allowed to stand, would have "wide-ranging consequences in every district in the Ninth Circuit, including on defendants who would no longer be able to rely on a prosecutor's promises in a plea agreement."

Puig's appellate attorney Jean-Claude André — the former appellate chief in the same U.S. attorney's office — called that claim "preposterous."

He said the district judge appropriately barred prosecutors from mentioning the deal in their case because she had yet to accept the plea and had never questioned Puig about his understanding of it at a hearing, which is a standard part of the plea process.

"The government should just try the case fairly on the facts, which we are ready to do," André said.

Bookies 'are a dime a dozen'

Axel said Puig — who had left MLB and was playing in South Korea when prosecutors first approached him, and is now playing in Mexico — backed out of the plea deal "because he could not plead guilty to a crime he did not commit." The attorney said the case is flawed in part because it hinges on the "mistaken or untrue" claims of other targets of their investigation.

It is not clear whether Puig's case and the one swirling around Ohtani are related.

According to prosecutors, Nix — a former minor league pitcher — started the Nix Gambling Business around 2001, using his professional sports connections to recruit fellow athletes as agents and bettors.

Nix worked out of his home in Newport Beach and on the Vegas Strip, where he and his customers were treated as high-rollers and where Nix arranged multi-million dollar bets and processed illicit proceeds through casinos, including by paying off short-term, in-house lines of credit known as markers in cash, prosecutors have said.

In March 2022, the U.S. attorney's office in L.A. announced charges against Nix and a handful of others allegedly in business with him, including the operators of an offshore sports-betting website and a check-cashing store believed to have laundered proceeds. Eventually, they also announced another target: Scott Sibella, former president of the MGM Grand casino and later an executive of Resorts World Las Vegas.

According to a December 2023 plea agreement, Sibella had admitted to prosecutors that he believed Nix was an illegal bookie, but had nonetheless allowed him to gamble large sums at MGM without alerting authorities to the activity as required.

Read more: Is Shohei Ohtani a theft victim? Is he in trouble? Legal experts say probes underway

"In this business, they [bookies] are a dime a dozen... I stay out of it. If we know, we can’t allow them to gamble," Sibella told prosecutors. "I didn’t ask, I didn’t want to know I guess because he wasn’t doing anything to cheat the casino."

Nix and Sibella, who is no longer a casino executive, have pleaded guilty to federal crimes in the case. In addition, MGM Grand and the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas have agreed to pay a combined $7.45 million to settle a money-laundering probe tied to the investigation.

As part of those settlements, MGM Grand admitted that Sibella and two casino hosts knew about Nix's illegal business but allowed him to use illicit proceeds at the casino, while the Cosmopolitan admitted that one of its hosts knew about Nix's business but allowed him to use his proceeds there.

The Washington Post has reported that it was the investigation into Sibella that landed Mizuhara's alleged bookie, Orange County resident Mathew Bowyer, in prosecutors' crosshairs.

Federal agents raided Bowyer's San Juan Capistrano home last year as part of their investigation, but his attorney, Diane Bass, recently told The Times that he has not been charged with a crime. She also said he "never met, spoke with, texted, or had contact in any way with Shohei Ohtani."

'You have a target on your back'

Legal experts following Ohtani's case said it is critical for the two-way star to get a firm grasp on the facts surrounding Mizuhara's alleged misuse of his money, all of which should be compared to bank, phone and other records before being shared with prosecutors.

Weinstein, the former federal prosecutor, said unanswered questions still abound.

Were there any payment authorizations allegedly made by Ohtani? If so, where was he at the time? Where was Mizuhara? Who actually made them? Ohtani on Monday said he has never gambled or knowingly paid money to any bookie.

Do Ohtani's phone records show any contacts between him and Mizuhara around the time of any alleged transactions with Bowyer? If so, what was the context?

Do Ohtani's bank records show that any of the transactions set off fraud alerts, such that bank officials made inquiries as to whether they were legitimate? If so, how were those inquiries responded to — and by whom?

Ohtani's claim that he is an athlete with little English proficiency who was taken advantage of by someone close to him won't be taken at "face value" by investigators, Weinstein said. Prosecutors can subpoena all kinds of records, and will if they think a serious crime — like the theft of millions of dollars — has been committed.

Read more: Shohei Ohtani leaves unanswered questions after blaming his interpreter in gambling scandal

And if either Bowyer or Mizuhara can prove Ohtani is not being truthful, Weinstein said, it's likely they will "run to the prosecutors and say, 'I want a deal, and you know what I'm going to offer you? Shohei Ohtani.' "

Axel, Puig's attorney, agreed Ohtani should be careful — and understand that "as a high profile athlete, you have a target on your back, and when you are not from the U.S., you may misinterpret the context of your interactions with law enforcement, which leads to misunderstandings that can be turned against you."

Lisette Carnet, Puig's agent who also represents other Latino players, said it is difficult for all immigrant athletes with language barriers — but particularly Latino players with little formal education, such as Puig — to "fully understand the intricacies of our American judicial system," and that "poses a risk" to them.

"No one cared enough about Puig to see what was actually wrong. It was easier to hate him, and to believe every bad story about him," Carnet said, addressing what she suggested was the player's unfair reputation as a "hothead."

With his career now hanging in the balance, she said, Puig is "trying to keep a positive attitude," even while "knowing that he may perhaps always be treated differently because of others' perceptions."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.