Ohtani's ex-interpreter pleads guilty to stealing nearly $17 mn from baseball star

Ippei Mizuhara, the former translator for MLB star <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Shohei Ohtani;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Shohei Ohtani</a>, pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of bank fraud and one count of filing a false tax return (Frederic J. Brown)

The former interpreter to Shohei Ohtani pleaded guilty on Tuesday to stealing nearly $17 million from the Japanese baseball star to pay off illegal gambling debts.

Ippei Mizuhara admitted one count of bank fraud, which carries a maximum 30-year prison sentence, and one count of filing a false tax return, which has a maximum three-year prison sentence, according to the US Attorney's Office.

US District Judge John Holcomb has scheduled sentencing for October 25.

Mizuhara appeared at a hearing in federal court in Santa Ana, mobbed by photographers as he entered the courthouse, after reaching a deal with prosecutors as part of a broader federal sports gambling investigation.

Ohtani's long-time friend took millions of dollars from the Major League Baseball star's bank account to finance an "insatiable appetite" for illegal sports gambling, prosecutors said.

"I worked for (Ohtani) and I had access to his accounts," Mizuhara said during the hearing.

"I fell into gambling debt and the only way I could think of was to access his money. I wired money for my gambling debt from his account."

Los Angeles Dodgers slugger and pitching star Ohtani, whose two-way skills have many comparing him to Babe Ruth among baseball's greatest legends, signed the richest contract in North American sports history to join the Dodgers last December, a deal worth $700 million.

After an initial April court appearance, Mizuhara's lawyer said his client wished to apologize to "Ohtani, the Dodgers and Major League Baseball" and "take responsibility" for his actions.

After Mizuhara's guilty pleas, the Dodgers issued a statement moving beyond the scandal that erupted as the team was starting the season in March.

"With today's plea in the criminal proceedings against Ippei Mizuhara and the conclusion of both federal and MLB investigations, the Dodgers are pleased that Shohei and the team can put this entire matter behind them," the team statement said.

Prosecutors have stressed that Ohtani was an innocent victim of Mizuhara's deception and there was no evidence to suggest the Dodgers star was aware of illegal gambling or involved in such matters.

"This full admission of guilt has brought important closure to me and my family," Ohtani said in a statement. "I want to sincerely thank the authorities for finishing their thorough and effective investigation so quickly and uncovering all of the evidence.

"It's time to close this chapter, move on and continue to focus on playing and winning ball games."

Mizuhara, 39, had worked for Ohtani as an interpreter since the Japanese star joined the Los Angeles Angels six years ago, setting up a bank account for Ohtani in Arizona, the eventual source of wire transfers by Mizuhara to the illegal gambling operation, US Attorney Martin Estrada said.

Estrada said Mizuhara allegedly lied to bank officials and was recorded on telephone calls impersonating Ohtani to "convince the bank to approve large wire transfers of large amounts of money to the bookmakers."

Estrada said Mizuhara would "plunder" Ohtani's bank account to commit "fraud on a massive scale."

A criminal complaint released by prosecutors detailed a staggering volume of bets placed by Mizuhara, who exploited the language barrier to keep Ohtani, his management team and financial advisers unaware of his moves.

Between December 2021 and January 2024, Mizuhara placed approximately 19,000 bets ranging in value from $10 to $160,000 at an average of around $12,800 per bet.

Mizuhara had winning bets worth $142.3 million, and losing bets of $182.9 million -- leaving him with losses of roughly $40.7 million.

- No bets on baseball -

Estrada said no illegal bets by Mizuhara were placed on baseball games.

Prosecutors said Mizuhara also took money from Ohtani to pay for $325,000 in baseball cards and $60,000 worth of dental work.

The tax return charge stems from 2022, in which Mizuhara claimed only $136,865 in taxable income when the true figure, prosecutors said, was above $4.1 million.

In the plea deal, Mizuhara admitted owing more than $1.1 million in 2022 taxes.