Baseball star Ohtani's ex-interpreter agrees to plead guilty to bank fraud

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -Japanese baseball great Shohei Ohtani's former interpreter has agreed to plead guilty to federal charges he fraudulently wired nearly $17 million stolen from the athlete's bank account to pay off his own gambling debts, court records showed on Wednesday.

The plea agreement between federal prosecutors and Ippei Mizuhara, the onetime translator and de facto manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers' power-hitting pitcher, was announced by the U.S. Attorney's Office in L.A., where the case was first brought last month.

A 33-page record of the deal, in which Mizuhara, 39, agreed to plead guilty to one count of felony bank fraud and one count of subscribing to a false tax return, was filed on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

A federal bank fraud conviction carries a statutory maximum sentence of 30 years in prison, with the tax offense punishable by up to three years behind bars. The tax charge was added to the case in conjunction with the plea deal.

Mizuhara is due to appear at a formal arraignment before a U.S. magistrate on May 14. He would likely enter his plea at a subsequent hearing before a federal district judge and be sentenced sometime after that, according to a U.S. attorney spokesperson.

In the meantime, Mizuhara remains free on $25,000 bond on condition he complies with a judge's order last month requiring him to undergo gambling addiction treatment and refrain from any contact with bookmakers, gambling establishments or Ohtani.

Mizuhara was accused of embezzling nearly $17 million from a bank account of Ohtani's that Mizuhara had helped open in Phoenix in 2018, and transferring the funds without the ballplayer's knowledge to an illegal bookmaking operation to cover Mizuhara's gambling debts.

Announcing the original bank fraud charge on April 11, U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada stressed there was nothing to suggest wrongdoing by Ohtani, who signed a record $700 million, 10-year contract to join the Dodgers this season, becoming the highest paid player in Major League Baseball.

Ohtani, 29, whose talents as a slugger and a pitcher have earned him comparisons to Babe Ruth, has said he was an unwitting victim of theft and has never bet on baseball or knowingly paid a bookmaker.

The allegations against Mizuhara, stemming from a wider federal probe of illegal sports gambling, surfaced during the Dodgers' season-opening series in Seoul, South Korea.

The outcome spared the Dodgers and the league a potential scandal of epic proportions, recalling the uproar stirred 35 years ago when Pete Rose was accused of gambling on baseball while he played for and managed the Cincinnati Reds. Rose, who later admitted to wagering on MLB games but not against his own team, ended up permanently banned from baseball in 1989.

According to prosecutors, Mizuhara began gambling with an illegal sports book in late 2021 and lost substantial sums.

To cover his debts, Mizuhara impersonated Ohtani over the phone on more than two dozen occasions to deceive bank employees into authorizing wire transfers from Ohtani's account, where the player's baseball salary was deposited, prosecutors said.

A longtime trusted confidante and driver for Ohtani, Mizuhara regularly interacted with the ballplayers' sports agents and financial advisors on behalf of the baseball star, who did not speak English, according to prosecutors.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Sonali Paul)