The tip arrived two weeks ago, and it threatened to engulf Major League Baseball’s biggest star, Shohei Ohtani, in scandal. The name of the Los Angeles Dodgers slugger and pitcher had surfaced in a federal investigation of illegal sports gambling — millions of dollars in payments were allegedly made from his bank account to an illicit bookmaker.

As The Times investigated the tip and began to assemble a story, Ohtani’s representatives scrambled behind the scenes to head it off. The result was a series of shifting accounts of how Ohtani’s name was raised as part of the investigation, with each version presenting him as not being involved in any wrongdoing.

And that effort continued after The Times broke the story of the probe. It culminated Monday in a news conference by Ohtani at Dodger Stadium, and what the ballplayer, the Dodgers and Major League Baseball had hoped would put the matter to rest.

It didn’t.

That’s because Ohtani’s claims — that his interpreter stole millions of dollars from him to pay a bookmaker and that the ballplayer knew nothing about it — have produced more mystery than clarity, beginning with the unanswered question of how such a large theft could go unnoticed for so long.

If the allegation against interpreter Ippei Mizuhara is true, and if Ohtani and his money were protected by the usual roster of business managers and financial institutions, the translator would have had to evade all the safeguards typically in place to shield a wealthy celebrity from thievery, fraud and other forms of financial exploitation, experts have told The Times.

Those lines of defense would include human and digital protocols for verifying the legitimacy of large withdrawals of money from a bank, in addition to assurances that financial professionals who handle expenses, investments and taxes are performing regular reviews of significant transactions.

Ohtani’s camp has accused Mizuhara, who has not been charged with a crime, of stealing at least $4.5 million from the ballplayer through nine bank wire transfers last year. The money allegedly covered Mizuhara’s gambling losses with suspected bookmaker Mathew Bowyer, a target of the federal investigation.

As of this writing, Mizuhara’s whereabouts could not be determined. He did not respond to numerous requests from The Times for comment, and it was not known whether he had an attorney. The Dodgers fired him on March 20. Mizuhara had worked with Ohtani since the ballplayer joined the Los Angeles Angels in 2018.

Multiple sources, who requested anonymity to share sensitive information, confirmed to The Times that the alleged payments under investigation were made via wire transfers. Such transfers should involve a multi-step verification process and leave a clear electronic trail, experts say.

“The one question I would have is who had authority to execute these wire transfers,” said Peter Grupe, a former FBI agent who ran the bureau’s white-collar crime division in New York. He said it would be “highly unlikely” that Ohtani didn’t have a business manager or anyone else in a similar role who could have flagged unusual movements of funds.

The alleged payments pose another head scratcher: Why would any illicit bookmaker allow Mizuhara to accrue a debt in the millions?

“Something’s not adding up,” said John Holden, an associate professor at Oklahoma State who studies the gambling industry.

“You don’t expect an illegal bookie to run through the same ‘know your customer’ check as DraftKings or FanDuel,” Holden said, “ but if you suspect that someone is stealing a lot of money and wagering it with you, that’s going to bring a lot of unwanted attention on you as well.

“If you’re a bookie of any variety, you probably have questions about where people are getting their money.”

Ohtani’s theft allegations against Mizuhara on Monday were part of a scripted presentation. He read from notes in Japanese, with his words translated by a new interpreter, Will Ireton. No questions were allowed, and Ohtani did not address any matter relating to who had access to his funds. Nor did he identify any managers or advisors who might have monitored troubling transactions with his money.

The two-way player, who has become the face of baseball, said he didn’t learn of the Bowyer investigation until several days after the media first contacted his agent about the probe. That was while the Dodgers were in Seoul last week preparing for their season-opening series there against the San Diego Padres.

According to Ohtani, Mizuhara did not tell him about the media queries and lied to the ballplayer’s representatives about what he was relaying to him on the same subject.

Ohtani said in Japanese that he wants to “cooperate with the police in every aspect” of an investigation. Legal experts say prosecutors could have a difficult time convicting or even charging Mizuhara without Ohtani’s cooperation and, if necessary, courtroom testimony.

Ohtani also said he has “never bet on anything or bet for anyone on a sporting event or asked someone to bet for me.” He also denied knowingly paying Mizuhara’s gambling debts. MLB rules prohibit players from betting on baseball in any circumstances and from gambling on other sports through illegal means. Violations could result in punishments ranging from fines and suspensions to, in cases of betting on baseball, a permanent ban from the game. All-time hits leader Pete Rose was banned for betting on Cincinnati Reds games while he managed the team.

From March 15 through March 20, the accounts of Ohtani and the interpreter’s connection to the investigation overseen by the U.S. attorney’s office in L.A., seemed to change by the hour.

The first suggested that there was no link, and that Ohtani had no comment in response to a Times query about the Dodger, Bowyer and the investigation, according to a representative for the ballplayer.

Next came the version that Ohtani generously paid off the gambling losses Mizuhara owed to Bowyer, ESPN reported after The Times story was published.

Then came the current narrative, made public March 20: Mizuhara stole the money. Ohtani said Mizuhara had invented every other rendition of events. In a meeting at their Seoul hotel, Ohtani said, Mizuhara admitted to him the theft and the deception.

There was no clue of Mizuhara’s alleged duplicity early on, as the story began to unfold out of public view and Ohtani’s representatives rolled into action. A day after The Times first left a voicemail message with Ohtani’s agent — Nez Balelo at powerhouse Creative Artists Agency — a crisis public relations manager contacted the newspaper on Ohtani’s behalf. The New York-based publicist, Matthew Hiltzik, has worked with Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign, but also Hollywood figures in trouble such as Johnny Depp, Alec Baldwin and disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein, who is serving a prison sentence for rape and sexual assault.

The Ohtani circle also retained Andrew Brettler, a West Hollywood lawyer who has represented Chelsea Handler as well as several celebrities caught up in sex scandals, including convicted rapist Danny Masterson, Armie Hammer and Prince Andrew.

Ohtani has become a global sensation since debuting with the Angels six years ago. In December, the Dodgers signed him to a 10-year, $700-million contract, the largest in baseball history, with most of the money deferred until after the agreement expires. Ohtani is expected to supplement his salary with an estimated $65 million in commercial endorsements this year, according to the sports business website Sportico.

A spokeswoman for CAA declined to answer questions on the record about whether the organization had any role in managing his finances.

The Times emailed numerous written questions to Brettler last week and has received no reply. The paper sent similar queries to MLB with the same result. The league did, however, announce on Friday that it was launching an investigation into Ohtani and Mizuhara. That was five days after The Times first contacted the league about the gambling investigation, and two days after the paper’s disclosure ignited the scandal.

Among the queries that yielded no response from Brettler are whether Ohtani gave Mizuhara access to his bank account and who in his orbit should have been aware of large wire transfers to a bookmaking operation.

The theft allegation leveled against Mizuhara on March 20 had contradicted what an unnamed Ohtani spokesman had told ESPN just hours earlier, the sports outlet reported. The ESPN article stated that the spokesman said the money came from Ohtani to cover Mizuhara’s gambling debts. The interpreter confirmed this account in a lengthy interview with the outlet on March 19, which was arranged by the spokesman, ESPN said.

But then the spokesman and later Mizuhara disavowed that account, and it was subsequently replaced with the claim that the interpreter stole the money through wire transfers of $500,000 each, according to ESPN. Brettler’s firm issued a statement saying it had notified law enforcement of the alleged “massive theft.” It has not said which agency it notified.

The IRS and Homeland Security are investigating the Bowyer case for the U.S. attorney’s office in L.A. The theft allegation could be handled by another agency, such as the FBI. An FBI spokesperson in L.A. did not respond to a reporter’s telephone call. The U.S. attorney’s office has declined to comment.

The investigation into Bowyer involves the same prosecution team that has focused on a multimillion-dollar illegal bookmaking scheme anchored in Orange County, according to Times sources and court records. At least a dozen people have been charged in that wider probe — including ex-Dodger Yasiel Puig, who has pleaded not guilty — that centered on a bookmaking operation led by former minor league baseball player Wayne Nix of Newport Beach, the records show.

David Shapiro, a former FBI agent who is an expert on financial investigations and teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that even if Mizuhara had been granted access to Ohtani’s bank accounts, that should not have prevented Ohtani from being notified about the $500,000 wire transfers.

Shapiro said transfers of such size would “no doubt trigger some type of supervisory review” at the bank. An investigation of the transactions likely would produce “an abundance of objective evidence” of who approved the transfers and whether the account holder had been alerted.

Banks have a duty to monitor large transfers and file suspicious activity reports with the U.S. Treasury Department when it appears the money is going toward illegal enterprises, said Grupe, the other former FBI agent.

“Somebody on the bank side, certainly $500,000 wire transfers, somebody should be taking a look at that,” he said.

An L.A.-based financial advisor who works with athletes said the transfers would typically include documentation of who received the transfer, its purpose, confirmation that it aligned with the client’s wishes, and more. The advisor, who asked not to be named because his firm did not permit him to speak publicly, pointed to the numerous “tripwires” to prevent fraudulent transfers.

“Even if the client thinks it’s intrusive, it’s for their benefit,” the advisor said, “that we’re asking questions, asking for additional documents, all so something like this doesn’t actually happen.”

Chase Carlson, a Miami attorney who works with high-profile athletes in financial fraud matters, said, “Ideally, the athlete will have a personal relationship with his banker and/or financial advisor, so when wires are conducted, the institution can confirm that the transfer was authorized. However, that is not always the case.”

The Times learned of the Bowyer investigation two weeks ago from a source familiar with the probe. The paper then reviewed a document related to the inquiry that included Ohtani’s name. Bowyer’s attorney, Irvine-based Diane Bass, subsequently told The Times that her client did not have direct contact with Ohtani and could not be certain the ballplayer was the person placing bets.

“Mathew Bowyer never met, spoke with, or texted, or had contact in any way with Shohei Ohtani,” she said last week.

A source told The Times that Bowyer had bragged to associates in Las Vegas that Ohtani was his client. The source said Bowyer did so for “marketing purposes” in his alleged bookmaking business.

Bowyer has not been charged with a crime. Federal agents raided Bowyer’s San Juan Capistrano home in October as part of the investigation.

The Times left a voicemail message with Balelo, the CAA agent, on March 15 and did not hear back. After the paper emailed Balelo the next day, the publicist Hiltzik responded and eventually said Ohtani had no comment.

Hiltzik later put Brettler, the attorney, on the phone with two reporters. Asked on the call if Ohtani had engaged in illegal gambling, Brettler did not reply directly, but he said the paper’s reporting was based on “inaccuracies.” He would not specify what the inaccuracies were.

Ohtani later alleged that the translator kept him out of the loop about the inquiries: “Ippei didn’t tell me such reporting was taking place. … Ippei told everyone, including my agent, that I made payments not on behalf of Ippei, but on behalf of another friend.” The next day, Ohtani said, Mizuhara told the agent the ballplayer had paid the interpreter’s debt. Ohtani called it “a complete lie.”

The Times asked MLB for comment on March 17; the league responded the next day that it wasn’t aware of a federal investigation.

On March 20, as the drama continued to quietly take shape, the Dodgers beat the Padres in Seoul in a game that began at 3 a.m. Pacific time. Minutes before the contest ended, another camera caught Ohtani and Mizuhara chatting and laughing in the dugout. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary.

After the game, Mizuhara and Dodger executives — including owner Mark Walter — addressed the team in the clubhouse before it opened to the media. According to multiple people with knowledge of the meeting, players heard a story from the executives and Mizuhara similar to the one he initially told ESPN: The interpreter had a gambling problem, Ohtani paid his debts last year and that a news story detailing the situation was imminent.

Ohtani later said he “had a general idea” of Mizuhara’s comments in the meeting and it gave him “an uncomfortable feeling.”

Not long afterward, Mizuhara translated questions from reporters to Ohtani about his first regular-season game with the Dodgers.

“We returned to the hotel and Ippei spoke to me for the first time and that’s when I learned he had a huge debt,” Ohtani said. “That’s when he told me he accessed my bank account and made payments to a bookmaker. I thought that was strange, so I called my representatives.”

Hours later, Brettler’s firm publicly accused Mizuhara of theft.

Times staff writers Dylan Hernández, Jack Harris and Gustavo Arellano contributed to this report



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