Ohtani's interpreter pleads guilty to $17m fraud

Baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani's former interpreter has agreed to plead guilty to charges that he illegally transferred nearly $17 million (€15 million) from the Japanese's bank account to pay off sports betting debts.

According to the US Department of Justice, 39-year-old Ippei Mizuhara pleaded guilty to one count of bank fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. He also pleaded guilty to one count of filing a false tax return, which carries a maximum sentence of three years, the Justice Department said.

Federal prosecutors said Mizuhara, a longtime friend and confidant of Ohtani, looted millions from the Los Angeles Dodgers star's bank account to fund an "insatiable gambling habit".

Ohtani, currently the biggest star in baseball, joined the Dodgers last December in a record-breaking $700 million (€652 million) deal, the biggest contract in North American sports history. A rarity in today's baseball, he combines elite pitching and hitting skills, making him a generational talent not seen since the retirement of the legendary Babe Ruth.

Mizuhara is expected to formally enter his guilty plea in the coming weeks, with the hearing scheduled for 14 May in Los Angeles.

Plea bargaining between defendants and prosecutors is common in the criminal justice system of the world's leading economic power, allowing defendants to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a lighter sentence, although the decision must be ratified by a judge.

Shohei Ohtani poses with his agent Nez Balelo (L) and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara during a press conference on his presentation  with the Los Angeles Dodgers. GETTY IMAGES
Shohei Ohtani poses with his agent Nez Balelo (L) and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara during a press conference on his presentation with the Los Angeles Dodgers. GETTY IMAGES

"The magnitude of this defendant's fraud and theft is enormous," U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said in a statement on Wednesday. "He used his position of trust to take advantage of Mr Ohtani and to fuel a dangerous gambling habit," Estrada added.Tyler Hatcher, special agent in charge of the Internal Revenue Service's criminal investigation division, said the investigation revealed that Mizuhara "not only stole from Mr. Ohtani, but also lied to the IRS about his income. Mr. Mizuhara used his relationship with Mr. Ohtani to finance his own irresponsibility," Hatcher said in a statement.

Revelations about Mizuhara surfaced at the start of the new baseball season in March, stunning the sports world and potentially implicating Ohtani in an illegal betting scandal.

Prosecutors have repeatedly insisted that Ohtani was an innocent victim of Mizuhara's deception and that there is no evidence that the Dodgers star was aware of or involved in illegal gambling.

The complaint revealed that between December 2021 and January 2024, Mizuhara placed approximately 19,000 bets ranging from $10 to $160,000, with an average of approximately $12,800 per bet.

During this period, Mizuhara had winning bets worth $142.3 million (€132 million) and losing bets worth $182.9 million (€169 million), resulting in losses of approximately $40.7 million (€37.2 million).

The complaint details that the contact information on Ohtani's bank account was subsequently changed to link it to Mizuhara's telephone number and an anonymous email address associated with Mizuhara. Mizuhara allegedly falsely identified himself as Ohtani in order to trick bank employees into authorising bank transfers.

Records of the bank calls captured Mizuhara impersonating Ohtani while attempting to make bank transfers.

Major League Baseball's gambling policy prohibits "any player, umpire, club or league official or employee" from betting on baseball or engaging in illegal betting on any other sport, so there was initial speculation that the Japanese player would be sanctioned, but the evidence at trial and his innocence ruled that out.

Players found guilty of betting on a match in which they are involved face a lifetime ban, with a one-year suspension if they are found to have bet on matches in which they are not directly involved. 

With a .358 average and MLB-high 11 home runs, Ohtani currently leads all major baseball batting rankings.