The former translator for Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani has been charged with bank fraud
The former translator for Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani has been charged with bank fraud AFP News

The former Japanese-language translator for Shohei Ohtani was charged with bank fraud on Thursday for allegedly stealing more than $16 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers superstar to pay off gambling debts.

Ippei Mizuhara, 39, made a series of unauthorized transfers from Ohtani's checking account between November 2021 and January 2024, the Justice Department said.

US federal prosecutor Martin Estrada told a press conference there was no evidence to suggest Ohtani was aware of or involved in Mizuhara's illegal gambling activity.

"I want to emphasise this point: Mr. Ohtani is considered a victim in this case," Estrada said.

Ohtani, the biggest star in baseball, joined the Dodgers last December in a record-breaking $700 million deal.

The 29-year-old Ohtani told reporters last month that he has never bet on baseball and had not known previously about Mizuhara's gambling problems.

Ohtani has not said in public how so much money could go missing from his account without his knowledge.

According to the Justice Department, Mizuhara transferred more than $16 million from Ohtani's bank account "to pay off his own substantial gambling debts incurred with an illegal bookmaking operation."

It said Mizuhara, in 2018, accompanied Ohtani, who did not speak any English at the time, to a bank branch in Arizona to open an account.

"Ohtani's salary from playing professional baseball was deposited into this account and he never gave Mizuhara control of this or any of his other financial accounts," according to an affidavit in the case.

"Mizuhara allegedly told Ohtani's US-based financial professionals, none of whom spoke Japanese, that Ohtani denied them access to the account," it added.

Estrada said that while employed as Ohtani's interpreter, Mizuhara had in fact operated as the baseball star's "de facto manager."

"Due to the position of trust he occupied with Mr. Ohtani, Mr. Mizuhara had unique access to Mr. Ohtani's finances," Estrada said. "He used and abused that position of trust in order to take advantage of Mr. Ohtani and to feed his insatiable appetite for sports betting."

The Justice Department complaint detailed a staggering volume and value of wagers placed by Mizuhara as his gambling spiralled out of control.

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. His losses during this period totaled around $40.7 million, the complaint said.

The complaint detailed that contact information on Ohtani's bank account was later changed to link it to Mizuhara's phone number and to an anonymous email address connected to Mizuhara, the affidavit said.

Mizuhara also would allegedly falsely identify himself as Ohtani to trick bank employees into authorizing wire transfers.

Bank recordings of telephone calls captured Mizuhara impersonating Ohtani as he sought to make wire transfers.

The Justice Department said Ohtani, in an interview with law enforcement, had denied authorizing Mizuhara's wire transfers.

"Ohtani provided his cellphone to law enforcement, who determined that there was no evidence to suggest that Ohtani was aware of, or involved in, Mizuhara's illegal gambling activity or payment of those debts," the department added.

Major League Baseball's gambling policy bars "any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee" from betting on baseball or making illegal bets on any other sport.

Players found guilty of betting on a game they were involved in are subject to life bans, with one-year suspensions if they are found to have gambled on games they are not directly involved in.

Ohtani is a rarity in baseball in that he combines elite level pitching and hitting ability, making him a generational talent who has been portrayed as a modern-day version of Babe Ruth.

Those skills and his clean-cut image have made him the global face of baseball.

Bank fraud carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.