Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Baseball star’s interpreter ‘stole millions to cover gambling debts’

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US authorities have charged the former interpreter for baseball star Shohei Ohtani with bank fraud, alleging that he stole more than 16 million dollars (£12.7m) from the Japanese player to cover gambling bets and debts.

Interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, a constant presence beside Ohtani in baseball stadiums across the country since 2018, abused the Los Angeles Dodgers star’s trust and exploited the language barrier to plunder a bank account that only he could access, prosecutors said.

US attorney Martin Estrada said Mizuhara was so intertwined in Ohtani’s life and career that he became the star’s “de facto manager”.

The role enabled him to withdraw money from the account — at times lying and impersonating Ohtani to bank employees — to finance his “insatiable appetite for illegal sports betting”.

Thursday’s announcement, at a packed news conference in Los Angeles, ended weeks of speculation about Mizuhara’s admitted gambling problems, the wide-ranging federal investigation and Ohtani’s role in the scandal.

Ms Estrada said that there is no evidence that Ohtani was aware of his interpreter’s actions, adding that Ohtani has cooperated with investigators.

“I want to emphasise this point: Mr Ohtani is considered a victim in this case,” he said.

The criminal complaint — detailing the scheme through text messages, financial records and recordings of phone calls — showed even Mizuhara knew the game was over.

In a message to his illegal bookmaker on March 20, the day the Los Angeles Times and ESPN broke the news of the investigation, he wrote: “Technically I did steal from him. it’s all over for me.”

Mizuhara faces up to 30 years in prison if he is convicted of a single count of bank fraud. Mizuhara’s first appearance in federal court is likely to occur this week.

Major League Baseball opened its own investigation after the controversy surfaced last month and the Dodgers immediately fired Mizuhara.

“Given the information disclosed (Thursday), and other information we have already collected, we will wait until resolution of the criminal proceeding to determine whether further investigation is warranted,” MLB said in a statement.

MLB rules prohibit players and team employees from betting — even legally — on baseball. MLB also bans betting on other sports with illegal or offshore bookmakers.

Ohtani left the Los Angeles Angels in December to sign a record 10-year 700 million dollar (£557m) contract with the Dodgers.

Ohtani and Mizuhara had been daily companions since the baseball star joined the Angels in 2018.

Ohtani’s baseball salaries prior to the Dodgers deal totalled around 40 million dollars (£31.9m), although it is also expected he earns tens of millions at least in endorsements each year.

Ohtani said he first became aware of Mizuhara’s gambling problem during a team meeting after the Dodgers’ March 20 win over the San Diego Padres in Seoul during MLB’s first game in South Korea. The LA Times and ESPN published their stories hours later.

Five days later, Ohtani told a Dodger Stadium press conference that he never bet on sports or knowingly paid any gambling debts accumulated by his interpreter.

He placed responsibility entirely on Mizuhara, and refuted the interpreter’s inconsistent accounts of whether Ohtani had paid off Mizuhara’s gambling debts.

“I am very saddened and shocked someone whom I trusted has done this,” the Japanese star said through a new interpreter.

“Ippei has been stealing money from my account and has been telling lies,” Ohtani said. “I never bet on sports or have wilfully sent money to the bookmaker.”

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