Shohei Ohtani gambling scandal: Legal expert explains next steps, likelihood of criminal charges

Shohei Ohtani’s longtime interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, was fired by the Dodgers on Wednesday after Ohtani’s representatives accused him of stealing millions of dollars to cover gambling debts. Mizuhara admitted to placing bets with Matthew Bowyer, an illegal bookmaker operating out of California who is under federal investigation. 

The incident has captured national attention in large part because of the murkiness surrounding the extent of Ohtani’s involvement. Mizuhara originally told ESPN reporters that Ohtani knowingly paid off his gambling debts. The interpreter changed his story a day later, claiming Ohtani was unaware of what the payments to Bowyer were for. Ohtani’s lawyers issued a statement claiming that the star had “been the victim of a massive theft.” 

Major League Baseball announced Friday it is launching an investigation into the situation.

Many are left wondering whether Ohtani was the one behind the bets, using Mizuhara to place them on his behalf. That seems possible, given the changing nature of the story and the question of why Bowyer would extend millions in credit to Mizuhara when he earned between $300,000 and $500,000 annually for his services. If Ohtani were not the one placing the bets, then how would Bowyer reasonably expect to get paid on such large wagers? 

MORE: Shohei Ohtani interpreter gambling timeline

The legal repercussions from this betting scandal are another question altogether. Could Ohtani face criminal prosecution for his involvement? 

Sporting News reached out to Dustin Marcello, who has been a Criminal Defense attorney for 17 years practicing in the districts of Nevada and Idaho. He has experience in defending against bookmaking charges and operates his own practice at the Law Office of Dustin R. Marcello in Coeur d’Alene.

Marcello explained the legal ramifications of Ohtani’s involvement to Sporting News. 

What kind of criminal charges could Shohei Ohtani face? 

The legal trouble Ohtani could find himself in depends on how much he knew about the gambling operation.

What we do know is that there were at least two wire transfers for $500,000 with his name going to Bowyer. What we don’t know is whether those transfers were made fraudulently, as Ohtani’s camp claims, or if Ohtani knowingly made them, as Mizuhara initially suggested. 

Here’s how those different situations could play out. 

If Ohtani knowingly placed bets

California is very clear in that it does not allow sports betting. But that is not the crime Ohtani should be worried about.

“The federal government usually doesn’t charge the underlying crime. They don’t charge you with the crime of ‘using an illegal bookie,’” Marcello explains. “What they do instead is almost universally charge wire fraud, bank fraud, tax fraud, things to do with the IRS that encompass the illegal activities. 

“You can’t just send $500,000 to a bank account and not report to the IRS. There are all these anti-terrorism and banking laws. I can guarantee it’s a violation of one or multiple of them.” 

If Ohtani were convicted of such fraud, he could face significant prison sentencing and fines. 

If Ohtani did not place the bets himself 

In this event, Ohtani could be still be charged with conspiracy. That is defined as an agreement between two or more people to commit an illegal act (making undisclosed gambling transactions), along with an intent to achieve the agreement’s goal.

The key word in there is intent. 

“If he did not have intent to be part of a gambling operation, then he’s not part of the conspiracy,” Marcello says. 

If Ohtani sent bank transfers not knowing that they were covering gambling debts, then he would be in the clear. This could explain why Ohtani’s camp had a sudden change in their narrative. 

“If all of the transactions are consistent with what Ohtani is now saying, which is that he didn’t know what was going on, then it’s probably no problem.” 

What are the likely next steps for Shohei Ohtani? 

The federal investigation is still ongoing. It’s ultimately up to prosecutors and US attorneys to decide if they want to bring charges against Ohtani.

“That will be based on if there is sufficient evidence,” Marcello explains. “They will see if there’s enough there to bring it to a grand jury, who then decides whether or not to have charges brought against you.”

The likelihood of charges being brought will also be determined by how much Ohtani’s story lines up with the evidence that investigators find. For that reason, don’t expect any more details to come out of Ohtani’s camp. 

“As a criminal defense attorney, we generally say don’t talk at all. The phrase is it can and will be used against you. It doesn’t say for you.”  

If charges are brought, then the situation will likely take months or years to play out.

The next big step is for Ohtani’s lawyers to wait and see if he receives what is called a target letter.

“That tells you that you are the target of a federal investigation. That’s when they think you did something wrong and are trying to collect evidence that you did commit a crime.” 

There is no reporting indicating that Ohtani has received such a letter. At this point, the federal government is more interested in his explanation for what is behind the transactions to Bowyer.  

If Ohtani’s involvement does not rise to the level of a crime, he could still be liable for something lesser such as tax code or banking regulations violations. Those proceedings would happen in Civil court, which would likely involve a fine but no criminal wrongdoing. 

Will the MLB punish Shohei Ohtani? 

It’s unclear what MLB will do if anything, but its decision won’t necessarily be tied to any criminal proceedings. 

“Criminal charges have a much higher threshold than MLB,” Marcello explains.

In other words, even if Ohtani is not charged with any crimes, that does not preclude him from receiving punishment from the league. 

Players in MLB are allowed to bet on sports other than baseball, but they are not allowed to use illegal bookies. Per the league’s policy, any player who places bets with an illegal bookie “shall be subject to such penalty as the Commissioner deems appropriate in light of the facts and circumstances of the conduct. Any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee who operates or works for an illegal bookmaking business shall be subject to a minimum of a one-year suspension by the Commissioner.”

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