Ippei Mizuhara, ex-interpreter for Shohei Ohtani, pleads guilty

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Tuesday, June 4, 2024

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Ippei Mizuhara, the former interpreter for baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani, pleaded guilty to bank and tax fraud charges during a change-of-plea hearing in federal court on Tuesday morning, two counts that carry a maximum sentence of 33 years. His sentencing is set for Oct. 25 at 2 p.m. PT.

Mizuhara's guilty plea prompted Major League Baseball, which previously announced it had launched a separate investigation, to declare that Ohtani was "a victim of fraud and this matter has been closed." Ohtani's current team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, also put out a statement saying it is "pleased that Shohei and the team can put this entire matter behind them and move forward in pursuit of a World Series title."

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

"This has been a uniquely challenging time for me," Ohtani's statement continued, "so I am especially grateful for my support team -- my family, agent, agency, lawyers and advisors along with the entire Dodgers organization, who showed endless support throughout this process. It's time to close this chapter, move on and continue to focus on playing and winning ballgames."

Mizuhara, 39, wore a black suit with a white undershirt while standing alongside his attorney, Michael Freedman, and repeatedly replied "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" while U.S. district judge John W. Holcomb asked about his knowledge of the plea agreement and the rights he was forfeiting by admitting guilt.

Near the end of the hearing, a 50-minute session from the 10th floor of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and United States Courthouse in Santa Ana, California, prosecution attorney Jeff Mitchell outlined the bank fraud charges against Mizuhara. When asked by Holcomb to describe what he did, Mizuhara said: "I worked for Victim A [Ohtani] and I had access to his bank account and I had fallen into major gambling debt, and the only way that I could think of was to use his money. I had access to Bank A. So I went ahead and wired money for my gambling debt with his bank account."

Mizuhara, who also faces a maximum fine of $1.25 million, walked out of the courthouse alongside Freedman shortly thereafter and did not provide any comment while mobbed by media members on his way to a car service.

Federal authorities formally accused Mizuhara of bank fraud on April 11 after he allegedly wired nearly $17million from Ohtani's account to pay off gambling debts with an offshore bookmaker named Mathew Bowyer, who is under federal investigation. Mizuhara placed somewhere in the neighborhood of 19,000 wagers from December 2021 to January 2024 without Ohtani's knowledge, according to an initial complaint, winning more than $142M and losing more than $182M. None of the bets were placed on baseball, according to federal authorities.

The bank account in question contained Ohtani's on-field earnings through his prior six-year stint with the Los Angeles Angels. Mizuhara helped Ohtani open the account in 2018, then later changed the registered emails and phone numbers in order to personally receive notifications for it. A plea agreement stated that Mizuhara impersonated Ohtani in phone conversations with bank representatives looking to verify wire transfers on at least 24 occasions. In interviews with federal prosecutors, Ohtani said he never authorized those wire transfers and was unaware of them.

"As we told all of you a couple months ago, this case was thoroughly investigated, thoroughly vetted, and we came to the conclusion, based on the evidence, that Mr. Mizuhara had committed a massive fraud, and that fraud was committed against the one victim in this case, who's Shohei Ohtani," U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said in a news conference outside a federal courthouse in Los Angeles about two hours after Mizuhara's guilty plea. "In fact, after we announced the charges, we only discovered more fraud in this case. We discovered Mr. Mizuhara had victimized Mr. Ohtani to the extent that he wouldn't even pay for dental fees. He stole money from Mr. Ohtani to pay for his own dental expenses. The fraud was deep, and the fraud was extensive."

Mizuhara is not a U.S. citizen and faces "significant immigration consequences," including "a risk of deportation," Estrada said Tuesday. Any consequences, however, would not apply until after Mizuhara completes a potential sentencing.

Mizuhara initially pleaded not guilty to bank and tax fraud during his arraignment in federal court in Los Angeles on May 14, a formality ahead of a plea deal he negotiated with federal prosecutors. Bank fraud charges carry a maximum sentence of 30 years in federal prison, and the charge for filing a false tax return -- in which Mizuhara allegedly failed to report more than $4 million for tax year 2022 -- carries a sentence of up to three years.

Mizuhara told the judge on Tuesday he "did not report that money on my taxes."

The Dodgers initially fired Mizuhara on March 20 in the wake of media inquiries surrounding at least $4.5M in wire transfers sent from Ohtani's bank account to a Southern California bookmaking operation run by bookmaker Mathew Bowyer that is under federal investigation. Mizuhara initially told ESPN that Ohtani oversaw the wire transfers but later walked back his account and said Ohtani had no knowledge of his gambling activities. Ohtani's lawyers then accused him of "massive theft."

In a long, prepared statement in front of the media on March 25, Ohtani said he is "very sad and shocked that someone who I've trusted has done this," later adding: "Ippei has been stealing money from us and told lies."

Mizuhara began his relationship with Ohtani in Japan and came over with him to the United States six-plus years ago to serve as his full-time interpreter in the major leagues. In his role, Mizuhara was responsible for most aspects of Ohtani's life, most notably serving as a liaison with English-speaking coaches, representatives and accountants. The two were rarely ever seen apart until Mizuhara's abrupt firing 11 weeks ago.

Mizuhara's guilty plea allowed MLB to close one gambling-related investigation one day after announcing the permanent ban of infielder Tucupita Marcano -- along with additional punishment for four other players, three of whom are in the minor leagues -- for placing bets on baseball.

"Based on the thoroughness of the federal investigation that was made public, the information MLB collected, and the criminal proceeding being resolved without being contested, MLB considers Shohei Ohtani a victim of fraud and this matter has been closed," MLB's statement read.

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