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

FILE - Los Angeles Dodgers' Shohei Ohtani, right, and his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, leave after a news conference ahead of a baseball workout at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, March 16, 2024. The firing of Ohtani's interpreter by the Los Angeles Dodgers over allegations of illegal gambling has highlighted an issue many outside of California don't realize: Sports betting is still against the law in the nation's most populous state. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)
Los Angeles Dodgers' Shohei Ohtani, right, and his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, leave after a news conference ahead of a baseball workout at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea on March 16. (Lee Jin-man / Associated Press)

Uncertainty suddenly surrounds one of Major League Baseball's biggest stars, with Shohei Ohtani mired in recent days in a growing scandal linked to a federal investigation into illegal sports gambling.

The public so far has only a fragmented picture of the case. But more facts could emerge in coming days and weeks, legal experts said, as federal prosecutors try to make sense of competing claims about Ohtani’s money being used to pay down gambling debts with a suspected illegal bookmaker in California. One key question — but not the only one — is whether the Japanese slugger was, as his representatives claim, the victim of a "massive theft" by his interpreter and right-hand man, Ippei Mizuhara.

"If there has been a 'massive theft,' you would expect Ohtani's people to cooperate with federal investigators," said Jeff Ifrah, a former federal prosecutor and sports betting expert who now works as a defense attorney, including for professional athletes. "They will figure out whether or not the interpreter is lying, and whether or not Ohtani is a true victim."

Meanwhile, the federal investigation will almost certainly inform a separate, internal inquiry by Major League Baseball into whether — potential crimes aside — there were any violations of league policies around players gambling on sports other than their own, experts said.

"There has to be an investigation," said Andrew Brandt, a sports commentator and executive director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at Villanova University. "The firing of the interpreter is not going to sweep this under the rug."

Read more: What to know about the Shohei Ohtani interpreter gambling scandal

Neither Ohtani nor Mizuhara has been charged with a crime. No betting on baseball has been alleged.

Still, the betting scandal has enveloped the MLB and one of its most high-profile — and highest paid — superstars. It has occurred so quickly that it has been difficult for observers, including many Dodgers fans, to keep track of what is being alleged and by whom.

One moment this week, Ohtani and Mizuhara were chuckling with each other during a game. The next, Ohtani's representatives were making the theft allegations. Soon after, MLB announced Mizuhara was fired.

Mizuhara's story, meanwhile, was rapidly shifting as well, according to reporting by The Times and ESPN. At first, he said Ohtani had learned of his debts and agreed to bail him out by wiring funds to an associate of Mizuhara's alleged bookmaker, Orange County resident Mathew Bowyer. But soon after that, Mizuhara retracted that version of events, according to ESPN, and said Ohtani had no knowledge of his gambling debts and had not transferred money on his behalf.

Read more: Who is Ippei Mizuhara, Shohei Ohtani's interpreter fired amid gambling accusations?

Evidence to support either camp's version of events has been slow to materialize.

Ohtani's camp has not responded to questions about the alleged nature of the theft, how the payments were made or what Ohtani knew of Mizuhara's debts if he didn't know about the payments themselves. Mizuhara could not be reached for comment.

An attorney for Bowyer said the alleged bookmaker — who is the target of an existing federal investigation but has not been charged with a crime — never interacted directly with Ohtani. Court records show federal prosecutors in Los Angeles have been conducting an investigation since 2017 into illegal gambling operations.

The U.S. attorney's office in L.A. declined to comment on the Ohtani matter.

Depending on the circumstances, transferring funds to an illegal bookmaker can raise legal questions about aiding and abetting a criminal enterprise, or engaging in wire fraud or money laundering, legal experts said. But such charges against individual gamblers are rare and usually filed to get those gamblers to flip on bookmakers, the experts said.

That said, stealing millions of dollars from someone, as Ohtani now accuses Mizuhara of doing, is definitely a crime, and not one that federal prosecutors are likely to ignore — especially when the allegations are coming from someone as high-profile as Ohtani, experts said.

Read more: Shohei Ohtani's attorneys accuse interpreter of 'massive theft' tied to alleged gambling

David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who now has a white-collar criminal defense practice, said there are very clear steps that the parties should be taking in light of the latest allegations by Ohtani — if they haven't already.

Ohtani and his attorneys should start compiling whatever evidence they can as to the alleged theft, he said.

They should proactively reach out to federal authorities, alert them of the alleged theft and that they are compiling records they may be willing to share, and prepare their own internal analysis of the records, he said. They also should reach out to MLB, say that they are taking the matter seriously and conducting a review, and that they have cut off all contact with Mizuhara.

In addition to working with federal authorities, Ohtani's lawyers should also be preserving a record for any potential civil litigation that Ohtani may want to bring against Mizuhara, Weinstein said.

To the extent Mizuhara disputes the theft allegation, Weinstein said the interpreter and his attorneys should be compiling their own evidence to rebut the claim, including any communications with Ohtani that would indicate he was aware of the transactions. As any such evidence is found, they should be sharing that with federal authorities.

"At this point, it's every person for themselves," Weinstein said.

Read more: Is Shohei Ohtani another Pete Rose? Dodgers star may be in legal trouble if he paid gambling debt

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors already investigating Bowyer will probably begin looking through records they have for anything related to Ohtani or Mizuhara, Weinstein said. They may also reach out directly to Ohtani and ask for an interview and any evidence he has of the alleged theft.

"The authorities are going to look and say, 'OK, let me see the bank account and show me where the theft is. Did you authorize these transactions?'" Weinstein said.

At some point, prosecutors will also reach out to Mizuhara to ask for an interview with him, Weinstein said. If they believe there is a potential case to be made, they could also start subpoenaing bank records, he said.

Ifrah said high-paid athletes often have staff who handle their business and financial interests, and sometimes do fall victim to betrayal by those people.

"We get a lot of calls about professional athletes being in some kind of financial mess because someone close to them accesses their accounts or uses some sort of authority to access their financial assets," Ifrah said.

Because of that, the first question he would be asking if he were a prosecutor on the case, he said, is what kind of access Mizuhara had to Ohtani's bank accounts. Ifrah said it would be hard to imagine Mizuhara siphoning millions from Ohtani in cash — which is what most illegal bookmakers deal in, if not crypto payments — without Ohtani or his financial managers knowing or agreeing to it.

"You start to wonder, how was that a 'massive theft'?" Ifrah said. "How did someone go and get cash from a bank account or liquidate one of your financial assets to get cash without you knowing?"

Read more: Startled Dodgers move on after Shohei Ohtani's interpreter accused of theft, gambling

Daniel Wallach, a sports betting and gambling attorney in Florida, agreed that any disappearance of millions of dollars should have set off alarms for the people who manage Ohtani's assets and should have been addressed long before the media started asking questions.

"The biggest red flag of all is that this pronouncement that there has been this 'massive theft' only occurred in response to the media poking around — like it was Crisis Management 101 to shift the attention away from Ohtani," he said.

Wallach said there are so many unanswered questions and contradictory explanations from Ohtani and Mizuhara at this point that, in addition to the federal investigation, MLB has no choice but to launch its own review — in part to make a decision as to whether Ohtani deserves to be sidelined.

"This requires a full-on investigation because there's so many inconsistencies and already deeply troubling facts," he said. "MLB needs to get as much information about this as possible early on to make at least a preliminary assessment as to whether Ohtani should be placed on leave until the conclusion of an investigation."

Punishments for players are at the discretion of the MLB commissioner, and while suspending or fining Ohtani may be unpopular, Wallach said, "the league's going to have a major reputational problem on its hands if there isn't a deeper probe into the underlying events."

The Dodgers have declined to comment on the situation beyond a statement that confirmed Mizuhara has been fired.

"We won’t be saying anything further right now," team president Stan Kasten said Thursday.

Cathy Fleming, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey, has represented clients — namely family members of players — who have come under internal investigation by MLB.

She said the league has a "pretty good internal investigation unit" with smart lawyers who deal with players with respect but aren't pushovers — and who will undoubtedly be training their eye on Ohtani soon, if they haven't already.

"He's not only going to be dealing with whatever happens" in the federal case, she said, "but I'm sure MLB is going to be looking at it with a microscope."

Times staff writers Bill Shaikin, Nathan Fenno and Paul Pringle contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.