Baseball’s Betting Scandal: Is Shohei Ohtani in Jeopardy

written by I. Nelson Rose

Every lawyer should carry a parrot trained to say two words.

Especially criminal defense attorneys.

That way at their first meeting, the lawyer can put the parrot on the new client’s shoulder to repeat over and over again, “Don’t talk!  Don’t talk!”

If you have been involved with illegal gambling, you don’t talk to anybody.  Not your spouse.  Not a guy in a bar.  And you certainly don’t give an on-the-record interview with ESPN.

This is especially true for illegal sports betting; the one form of gambling which is clearly covered by federal law.

Shohei Ohtani, the world’s most famous and highest paid baseball player, has now been implicated by his friend and former interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, who clearly needed to be given a trained parrot.

As always happens in cases like this, the stories keep changing.

The feds busted an illegal bookie in California and discovered money wires totaling $4.5 million from Ohtani.  The parrot-less Mizuhara told ESPN that Ohtani was merely paying off his friend’s gambling debts.

Mizuhara may not have a parrot, or a competent lawyer, but Ohtani has.  The LA Dodger superstar’s spokesmen and lawyers quickly said it was not true.  Mizuhara stole the $4.5 million from Ohtani.  And Mizuhara recanted, even before he was fired.

I am getting inquiries from the largest news outlets in the world, especially in the U.S. and Japan.  And no one cares whether the bets were made on baseball.  Reporters want to know if Ohtani might be guilty of violating any criminal laws.

The answer is, “Yes,” depending on the facts.

There are a lot of questions, some of which don’t look so good for Ohtani.  Mizuhara made, at most $500,000 a year.  Ohtani has a contract for $700 million. 

Why would any bookie allow a guy like Mizuhara to run up a gambling debt of $4.5 million?

The current story is that Mizuhara wired the $4.5 million from Ohtani’s account without Ohtani knowing anything about it.

Why would Ohtani let Mizuhara have such access to his personal bank accounts?

It is certainly possible that Ohtani is merely a victim here, and victims do not normally face criminal prosecutions.

But the world is much darker for Mizuhara, who, at the very least, was making sports bets in violation of California state law.  And Ohtani himself could face just about the worst penalties the law applies if he knew about and participated in the bets and the money transfers.

The most common way athletes get around the leagues’ prohibitions on sports betting is to have friends place their bets.  Because regulators often closely watch the money placed with legal sports books, much of this action goes to illegal bookies.

 Sports betting is now legal in more than 35 states.  But not California.

California has a 115-year-old statute making it a misdemeanor to accept, record or even make a bet on a sports event.  Of course, a small-time bettor is never prosecuted.  But things get much worse when more than one person is involved.

If two people agree to violate the law, even a misdemeanor, it is a felony.  

And this is just state law.

Federal law, the Wire Act, makes it a felony for anyone involved in the business of gambling to send bets on sports events using a wire.  Prosecutors normally need to show that at least one of the money transfers took place across states lines.

And being merely a bettor does not make a person “in the business of gambling.”  Though helping a booking collect gambling debts does.

If Mizuhara’s first story is true, then Ohtani thought he was merely helping a friend by paying off his gambling debt.  But he also would have had to have known that he was also helping the bookie collect the debt.

A separate federal statute, the Illegal Gambling Businesses Act, makes it a felony for five or more people to conduct a gambling business in violation of state laws, if the business has gross revenue of $2,000 in any single day.  Conducting a gambling business includes collecting gambling debts. 

And the dangers don’t stop there.  

The federal anti-gambling laws are designed to go after organized crime.  So a violation of the Wire Act or the Illegal Gambling Businesses Act can kick in all the racketeering statutes.  These include RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) and anti-money laundering laws.  Under RICO, the government can seize all the defendant’s property; money laundering has a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

None of this is going to happen to Ohtani.  There is little evidence that he made the bets, or even knew about them before the gambling debts were paid.  

Besides, in America, with the exception of Mike Tyson, the rich and famous do not go to prison.

According to the most recent version of events, Ohtani had to fire a close friend who stole $4.5 million.  This would be horribly upsetting.  But he wouldn’t lose any sleep – not good for a pitcher and hitter – worrying about being prosecuted if Mizuhara had admitted stealing the money, or had said Ohtani had nothing to do with paying off the gambling debts, or had simply said nothing at all.

Once again proving the value of having a trained parrot.

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I. Nelson Rose

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