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Japanese interpreter charged with stealing $16 million from MLB star Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani Press Conference

By Steve Gorman and Julia Harte

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -Japanese baseball star Shohei Ohtani’s former interpreter was charged with bank fraud on Thursday in federal court and accused of stealing $16 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers power-hitting pitcher to cover gambling debts.

According to a 36-page criminal complaint and affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Ippei Mizuhara embezzled the money from an account of Ohtani’s that Mizuhara had helped set up and sent the funds without Ohtani’s knowledge to an illegal sports gambling operation.

U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada, announcing the results of his investigation at a news conference, stressed that there was nothing to suggest wrongdoing by Ohtani, who signed a record $700 million, 10-year contract to join the Dodgers this season as the league’s highest-paid player.

“I want to emphasize this point. Mr. Ohtani was a victim in this case. There’s no evidence to indicate that Mr. Ohtani authorized the over $16 million in transfers from his account to the bookmakers,” Estrada said.

The outcome spared the Dodgers and Major League Baseball a potential scandal of epic proportions, recalling the controversy stirred 35 years ago when Pete Rose was accused of gambling on baseball games, including those of his own team, while he played for and managed the Cincinnati Reds.

Those allegations led MLB to permanently ban Rose from baseball in 1989. Rose later admitted to wagering on MLB games, including those played by the Reds but said he never bet against his own team.

Ohtani, 29, whose talents as a slugger and a pitcher have earned him comparisons to Babe Ruth, told reporters at a March 25 press conference that he was a victim of theft by Mizuhara and that he never bet on baseball or knowingly paid a bookmaker.

Mizuhara, 39, has agreed to turn himself over to federal authorities on Friday and was expected to make his initial court appearance that afternoon, according to Thom Mrozek, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The defendant will not be asked to enter a plea and is expected to be released on bond, Mrozek added.

If convicted on the single count of bank fraud with which he is charged, Mizuhara could face a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.

Mizuhara’s attorney, Michael Freedman, told Reuters on Thursday that his client had no comment on the charge.

Starting in late 2021, Mizuhara began gambling with an illegal sports book and losing substantial sums, according to the federal affidavit.

To cover his debts, Mizuhara repeatedly impersonated Ohtani to “trick and deceive” bank employees into authorizing wire transfers from Ohtani’s account, where the player’s baseball salary was deposited, the affidavit said.

Last month, while messaging a bookmaker about reports surfacing then that Mizuhara had stolen from Ohtani, Mizuhara wrote, “Technically I did steal from him. It’s all over for me,” according to the affidavit.

Mizuhara “used and abused” his unique position of trust “to plunder Mr. Ohtani’s bank account,” Estrada told reporters.

Mizuhara, who met Ohtani in 2013 when they were both with Japan’s Nippon Ham Fighters team, was Ohtani’s near-constant companion during his six seasons with the Los Angeles Angels. The interpreter was fired by the Dodgers in March.

Days later, Ohtani told reporters at the March 25 press conference that Mizuhara had admitted to him that he had been using Ohtani’s account to make the payments, and said he was “saddened and shocked” by the betrayal.

Estrada said at Thursday’s press conference that a Japanese linguist had reviewed thousands of communications between Ohtani and Mizuhara and had found no discussions between the two about betting or authorizing transfers to bookmakers.

The investigation into Mizuhara grew out of an ongoing, broader probe by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security into illegal sports gambling operations throughout Southern California, Estrada said.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles Julia Harte in New York; Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta, Susan Heavey and Ismail Shakil; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Jonathan Oatis, Leslie Adler and Muralikumar Anantharaman)

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