Baseball star Ohtani’s ex-interpreter released on $25,000 bond after court appearance

By Steve Gorman and Omar Younis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -The former interpreter for Japanese baseball great Shohei Ohtani was ordered released on $25,000 bond after his first court appearance to face a bank fraud charge accusing him of stealing $16 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers star to cover illegal gambling expenses.

Ippei Mizuhara, 39, who surrendered to authorities earlier in the day, did not enter a plea during a 25-minute proceeding before a U.S. District Court magistrate judge in downtown Los Angeles. He was ordered to return for an arraignment on May 9.

The hearing came a day after prosecutors charged Mizuhara, and publicly exonerated Ohtani, in a case that had threatened to embroil the Dodgers, Major League Baseball and a power-hitting pitcher regarded as a national hero in his home country.

“For me personally, this marks a break from this, and I’d like to focus on baseball,” the Los Angeles Times quoted Ohtani as saying in his first public comments since his former interpreter was charged.

Mizuhara, dressed in a dark suit, said little during the hearing except to answer “yes” to a number of questions posed by the judge, Maria Audero. He was initially wearing ankle shackles, which were removed in court at his lawyer’s request.

Audero set bond at $25,000, saying he had no prior criminal record and with ties to the community was not considered a flight risk.

But she imposed a number of conditions for Mizuhara’s release, including requirements that he undergo gambling addiction treatment and refrain from any contact with gamblers, bookmakers or Ohtani.

Under an agreement reached with prosecutors in advance, Mizuhara had turned himself over to law enforcement on Friday morning.

A 36-page federal criminal complaint and affidavit filed on Thursday in federal court alleges that Mizuhara engaged in bank fraud by embezzling $16 million from an account of Ohtani’s that Mizuhara had helped set up.

Mizuhara is accused in the court documents of sending the funds without Ohtani’s knowledge to an illegal sports gambling operation.

On Thursday, U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada stressed there was nothing to suggest wrongdoing by Ohtani, who signed a record $700 million, 10-year contract to join the Dodgers this season as the league’s highest-paid player.

“I want to emphasize this point. Mr. Ohtani was a victim in this case,” Estrada said in announcing the results of his investigation.

The outcome spared Ohtani and the MLB from a potential scandal of epic proportions, recalling the controversy stirred 35 years ago when Pete Rose was accused of gambling on baseball games, including those of his own team, while he played for and managed the Cincinnati Reds.

Ohtani, 29, whose talents as a slugger and a pitcher have earned him comparisons to Babe Ruth, told reporters at a March 25 press conference that he was a victim of theft by Mizuhara and that he never bet on baseball or knowingly paid a bookmaker.

If convicted on the single count of bank fraud with which he is charged, Mizuhara could face a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.

Mizuhara’s attorney, Michael Freedman, told Reuters on Thursday that his client had no comment on the charge.

Starting in late 2021, Mizuhara began gambling with an illegal sports book and losing substantial sums, according to the federal affidavit.

To cover his debts, Mizuhara impersonated Ohtani over the phone to “trick and deceive” bank employees into authorizing wire transfers from Ohtani’s account, where the player’s baseball salary was deposited, the affidavit said.

The investigation drew out of an ongoing, wider probe by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and Department of Homeland Security into illegal sports gambling throughout Southern California and the laundering of those proceeds through casinos in Las Vegas.

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