Shohei Ohtani’s ex-interpreter stole $16 million to cover gambling debts, feds say

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Federal prosecutors charged Ippei Mizuhara, longtime interpreter and close friend of Shohei Ohtani, with bank fraud Thursday, saying he stole more than $16 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers star to pay off gambling debts.

The indictment appeared to vindicate Ohtani in the scandal that has dominated headlines since the beginning of the baseball season, when the Los Angeles Times and ESPN broke the news that Ohtani’s name was on millions of dollars in wire transfers to a suspected illegal bookie, Mathew Bowyer.

In a news conference to announce the charges, U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said that a thorough investigation had left no doubt that Mizuhara had “used and abused [his] position of trust to plunder Mr. Ohtani’s bank account to the tune of over $16 million.”

“I want to emphasize this point,” Estrada said. “Mr. Ohtani was a victim in this case.”

That would spell relief for Major League Baseball, for whom Ohtani — who has been both an elite slugger and pitcher throughout his career, earning comparisons to Babe Ruth — is its marquee player and a global icon. The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Ohtani, who is from Japan, to a record-shattering contract in December worth $700 million, the vast majority of it deferred.

Confusion was rampant as the initial news articles were published about the gambling payments, citing a tangle of conflicting explanations. An Ohtani spokesperson initially echoed Mizuhara’s account that the ballplayer had knowingly wired millions to cover his interpreter’s losses, according to ESPN. But the ballplayer’s attorneys soon disavowed that, saying that Ohtani was a victim of a “massive theft.”

MLB announced last month it was opening an investigation into the situation. After the indictment, the league issued a statement indicating it was putting its investigation on hold. “According to that investigation, Shohei Ohtani is considered a victim of fraud and there is no evidence that he authorized betting with an illegal bookmaker,” the MLB statement said. “Further, the investigation did not find any betting on baseball by Mr. Mizuhara. Given the information disclosed today, and other information we have already collected, we will wait until resolution of the criminal proceeding to determine whether further investigation is warranted.”

But the indictment Thursday also raised new questions about the scale of the wagering and the handling of the finances and public relations of one of the world’s best-known and highest-paid athletes.

Records cited in the complaint suggest far more massive gambling activity tied to Mizuhara than was previously reported — including wagers of more than $180 million. Overall, the account tied to the interpreter lost $41 million, according to prosecutors. Investigators stated that among those thousands of bets, there was no evidence that any of them were on baseball.

The indictment suggests that much of the confusion that allowed Mizuhara to allegedly siphon millions from Ohtani’s accounts and then use Ohtani’s own representatives to advance a false story exonerating him was the result of the interpreter using his control of a language barrier to manipulate not only the ballplayer but his agent, Nez Balelo, and a team of advisers and financial managers. Ohtani’s representatives declined to comment Thursday.

In interviews with federal investigators this month, according to the complaint, Ohtani denied authorizing the wire transfers and said he did not even learn about the impending scandal surrounding him until after Mizuhara and a spokesperson had already falsely told ESPN that Ohtani had knowingly paid off the debts. Ohtani said that following the season-opening game against the San Diego Padres in Seoul, Mizuhara addressed the entire Dodgers team in the clubhouse, in English, and Ohtani picked up that there was an issue. At a hotel later that evening after Ohtani confronted him, Mizuhara informed him for the first time that he had been paying his illegal bookie with funds from Ohtani’s account, the baseball star told the feds.

An IRS agent stated in a court affidavit that he had reviewed 9,700 pages of text messages between Ohtani and Mizuhara and found no discussion of betting wagers, debts or any other related matter. The agent, Chris Seymour, said he did “not find it credible” that Ohtani knew of Mizhura’s debts.

Mizuhara faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. The New York Times reported earlier this week that Mizuhara was negotiating a guilty plea with federal prosecutors, but there was no indication of that in Thursday’s court filings. On Friday, when Mizuhara made his first appearance in court, his attorney, Michael Freedman, said in a statement that Mizuhara “is continuing to cooperate with the legal process and is hopeful that he can reach an agreement with the government to resolve this case as quickly as possible so that he can take responsibility.”

“He wishes to apologize to Mr. Ohtani, the Dodgers, Major League Baseball, and his family,” the statement added. “As noted in court, he is also eager to seek treatment for his gambling.”

Mizuhara’s relationship with Ohtani began near the end of 2017, after Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels, his first MLB team. Ohtani didn’t speak English, and Mizuhara contacted him and offered his services as an interpreter. Yahoo has previously reported discrepancies in Mizuhara’s public résumé.

Mizuhara became inseparable from Ohtani, driving him and acting, according to the federal complaint, as his “de facto manager and assistant.” The complaint states that Ohtani’s agent, Balelo, didn’t hire any interpreters to deal with Ohtani because Mizuhara was always present. Baleo didn’t “speak directly” with his client or text him regularly, instead relaying messages through Mizuhara, according to the complaint. Ohtani’s financial team also did not include Japanese speakers, forcing them to rely on Mizuhara.

Mizuhara used that insulation and trust to prey on Ohtani, according to prosecutors. In March 2018, Mizuhara helped Ohtani set up a bank account in Arizona to deposit his playing checks. Mizuhara then kept the prying eyes of Ohtani’s financial advisers from the account, according to the indictment. When a bookkeeper attempted to gain access to it, Balelo informed him that, according to Mizuhara, Ohtani wanted the account “kept private.”

Another accountant told federal investigators that after he arranged a meeting with Ohtani, only Mizuhara showed, saying Ohtani was sick and that the ballplayer wanted the bank account in question “kept private from everyone.”

The account allegedly became a central fund for Mizuhara to pay off ballooning gambling debts. In November 2021, $40,010 was debited from the account in what an investigator called “the first unauthorized wire transfer” from the account by Mizuhara. Those transfers would reach well into the millions over the next couple of years as Mizuhara’s alleged wagering with an illegal bookie network spun out of control. Prosecutors said that bank recordings showed Mizuhara impersonated Ohtani, including answering security questions about his life, to trick bank employees into authorizing six-figure transfers to bookies.

The complaint does not name the bookie with whom Mizuhara primarily dealt, instead referring to him as “Bookmaker 1″ and saying he is a target of an ongoing investigation. But the details given, including that the bookie’s home was raided in October, align with those known about Bowyer. Bowyer declined to comment Thursday when reached by The Washington Post.

A log of gambling activity by the account linked to Mizuhara, which a federal investigator said was provided by a “cooperating source” in the illegal bookmaking network, suggested much larger dollar amounts than have been previously reported. The account linked to Mizuhara placed approximately 19,000 wagers in just over two years — or nearly 25 a day, ranging from $10 to $160,000 per bet, with an average bet of $12,600. The records reflect total winning bets of more than $142 million, according to the investigator, and total losing bets of nearly $183 million — meaning total losses of $40.7 million.

The complaint does not say whether other gamblers could have used the same account or otherwise explain the discrepancy between those losses and the $16 million cited by prosecutors.

Much of the most direct evidence tying Mizuhara to wagering came from his cellphone. The Dodgers fired Mizuhara in Korea, after Ohtani’s attorneys accused him of theft. Upon his return to the United States, according to the complaint, federal agents were waiting at Los Angeles International Airport and seized his phone.

A September 2021 text message between Mizuhara and the bookie suggested that the interpreter was a novice sports bettor. “I’ve just been messing around with soccer, there’s games on 24/7 lol,” Mizuhara texted, according to the complaint. “I took UCLA but they lost outright!!!”

But within eight months, the texts showed, Mizuhara had racked up more than $1 million in debt and appeared to beg for increasing amounts of credit — which the bookie seemed eager to extend to him.

“I’m terrible at this sport betting thing huh? Lol…” Mizuhara allegedly texted the bookie in November 2022. “Any chance u can bump me again?? As you know, you don’t have to worry about me not paying!!”

After a similar plea the following month, the bookie responded that giving him more credit was no problem, adding: “Merry Christmas.”

By the following June, the messages suggest, Mizuhara was wiring the bookie $500,000 a week while still asking for more credit. “I have a problem lol,” the interpreter allegedly wrote. “Can I get one last last last bump? This one is for real. . . . Last one for real[.]”

“Done,” the bookie responded, assuring him with a fist bump emoji. “I have the same problem. To be honest with you Ippie, as long as you can guarantee the 500 every Monday I’ll give you as much as you want because I know you’re good for it[.]”

But by last November, Mizuhara seemed to be out of the bookie’s good graces — and the bookie appeared to threaten outing him to Ohtani, who lived in Newport Beach, Calif. “Hey Ippie, it’s 2 o’clock on Friday,” reads a text message cited in the complaint. “I don’t know why you’re not returning my calls. I’m here in Newport Beach and I see [Ohtani] walking his dog. I’m just gonna go up and talk to him and ask how I can get in touch with you since you’re not responding? Please call me back immediately.”

Mizuhara allegedly responded a couple of days later, complaining about having lost money in cryptocurrency on top of the gambling losses. “Just wanted to ask, is there any way we can settle on an amount?” Mizuhara texted. “I’ve lost way too much on the site already . . . of course I know it’s my fault.”

The back-and-forth apparently came to a head around Jan. 6, when the bookie texted Mizuhara that he was “putting me in a position where this is going to get out of control. If I don’t hear from you by the end of the day today it’s gonna [sic] be out of my hands.”

It’s not clear what Bowyer meant by that apparent threat. Bowyer’s attorney previously told The Post that she first spoke with federal authorities about Ohtani and Mizuhara that same month. But prosecutors say that as the walls closed in on Mizuhara, he continued to siphon from his famous client’s bank account. Prosecutors said that earlier this year, Mizuhara spent $325,000 on valuable baseball cards — including those of Yogi Berra, Juan Soto, and Ohtani himself — and had them mailed to him under a pseudonym at the Dodgers’ clubhouse.

The complaint states that Mizuhara and the bookie continued to text each other even as the news of the gambling debts broke. “Have you seen the reports?” Mizuhara asked after Ohtani’s attorneys had alleged the ballplayer was a victim of theft.

“Yes, but that’s all bulls—,” the bookie responded. “Obviously you didn’t steal from him. I understand it’s a cover job I totally get it.”

“Technically I did steal from him,” Mizuhara allegedly responded, adding: “it’s all over for me.”

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