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Shohei Ohtani's ex-interpreter to plead guilty in gambling scandal

Ippei Mizuhara was fired by Ohtani's team, the Dodgers, in March amid a gambling scandal that rocked baseball.
/ Source: TODAY

The former interpreter for Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani has agreed to plead guilty to a pair of federal criminal charges stemming from the gambling scandal that rocked the baseball world earlier this year, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Ippei Mizuhara has agreed to plead guilty to one count of bank fraud and one count of subscribing to a false tax return, the Justice Department said in a press release on May 8. The former charge carries a statutory maximum sentence of 30 years in federal prison, while the latter carries a sentence of up to three years in federal prison.

The announcement detailed what prosecutors describe as Mizuhara illegally transferring nearly $17 million from Ohtani's bank account without Ohtani's permission to pay off gambling debts.

Mizuhara, 39, is expecting to enter a plea in the coming weeks and has an arraignment scheduled for May 14. An attorney for Mizuhara could not be immediately reached for comment by NBC News.

“The extent of this defendant’s deception and theft is massive,” said United States Attorney Martin Estrada in a statement. “He took advantage of his position of trust to take advantage of Mr. Ohtani and fuel a dangerous gambling habit.”

The announcement of a plea deal comes nearly a month after federal prosecutors announced on April 11 the filing of a federal criminal complaint alleging bank fraud against the interpreter. Mizuhara surrendered to law enforcement the next day.

The April 11 announcement stated that Mizuhara was charged with unlawfully transferring more than $16 million from Ohtani's bank account without the player's knowledge or permission "to pay off his own substantial gambling debts incurred with an illegal bookmaking operation."

The alleged transfers began in 2021, according to the announcement.

“I want to emphasize this point, Mr. Ohtani is considered a victim in this case. There is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Ohtani authorized the over $16 million of transfers from his account to the bookmakers,” Estrada said at a press conference at the time.

The complaint did not indicate bets were made on baseball games.

Mizuhara's attorney and reps for Ohtani declined comment on April 11. Ohtani previously denied involvement in the scandal, saying at a March 25 press conference the interpreter “has been stealing money from my account and has told lies.”

Two sources familiar with the matter had told NBC News on April 10 that Mizuhara would likely be charged by federal authorities in connection with a gambling investigation related to the investigation of a former Orange County, California, bookie. Ohtani was assisting with the investigation, the sources said.

Read on to learn more about who Ohtani is and how he has gotten caught up in this controversy.

Who is Shohei Ohtani?

To call Ohtani a generational talent underscores just how special a player he is. He is a two-way player, meaning he can play the field and hit, as well as pitch. It’s something that simply doesn’t happen in the professional levels of baseball with his talent, at least not since Babe Ruth did it a century ago. And not only is he a two-way player, but he excels at all phases of the game.

Born July 5, 1994, in Oshu, Japan, Ohtani played professionally in Japan from 2013 through 2017 — meeting Mizuhara during this time frame — before signing with the Los Angeles Angels.

Shohei Ohtani pitches for the Los Angeles Angels during a spring training game in 2018.
Shohei Ohtani blossomed as a hitter and pitcher while with the Los Angeles Angels.Masterpress / Getty Images

His career with the Angels began in 2018. On the mound that season, he went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA. He also hit .285 and clubbed 22 home runs. His efforts earned him American League Rookie of the Year honors.

While the Angels struggled during his tenure and never made the playoffs, Ohtani was nothing short of terrific, even as he battled injuries that limited his ability to pitch. A three-time All-Star, he won the American League MVP award in 2021 and 2023 and finished as the runner-up in 2022.  He also helped Japan win the World Baseball Classic in 2023.

Ohtani signs with the Dodgers

Ohtani became a free agent following the 2023 season. He signed a 10-year, $700 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the biggest deal in professional sports history. He is currently unavailable to pitch due to injury.

Notoriously private, the most surprising thing about Ohtani prior to this controversy may have been his revelation that he is married or the fact he has a dog, all of which is to say he had a pretty squeaky-clean image.

Shohei Ohtani in a spring training game with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Shohei Ohtani is in his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers.Harry How / Getty Images

What is the gambling controversy?

In March, the Los Angeles Times reported that Ohtani’s name had come up in a federal investigation into alleged bookmaker Mathew Bowyer, with whom Ohtani’s interpreter at the time, Ippei Mizuhara, allegedly placed bets. Mizuhara was subsequently fired by the Dodgers after the story came out. Bowyer has not been charged with a crime.

“Bowyer has never had any contact with Shohei Ohtani. He has never met him he has never spoken with him,” Diane Bass, a lawyer for Bowyer, said in March.

The allegations against Mizuhara had centered on wire transfers from Ohtani’s bank account to a bookmaking operation in California, allegedly run by Bowyer and which was under federal investigation, that totaled more than $4.5 million, made in at least nine payments of $500,000, a person familiar with Ohtani and Mizuhara’s interactions told NBC News at the time.

A source familiar with Mizuhara and Ohtani's interactions told NBC News that Mizuhara initially told Ohtani's camp that he had accrued a large debt from gambling and sought out Ohtani to help him.

Mizuhara had reportedly said Ohtani agreed to help pay the debt, as long as Mizuhara gave up gambling, according to the source. As the news went public, Mizuhara changed his story to Ohtani's camp, the source said, and said what he had initially told them was not true, adding Ohtani had no idea he had been gambling. The source said Mizuhara allegedly stole the money from the star, authorizing the transfers without his knowledge.

Bass has said, “Mr. Mizuhara was placing bets mostly on international soccer and occasionally basketball and football, but never baseball.”

Mizuhara did not respond to requests by NBC News for comment at the time.

Attorneys for Ohtani have described the baseball superstar as a “victim of a massive theft.”

On April 11, federal prosecutors announced Mizuhara had been charged with bank fraud. Their announcement stated that he was charged via federal criminal complaint with unlawfully transferring more than $16 million from Ohtani's account, without Ohtani's permission or knowledge, "to pay off his own substantial gambling debts incurred with an illegal bookmaking operation."

The U.S. Justice Department announced nearly a month later, on May 8, that Mizuhara has agreed to plead guilty to charges for illegally transferring nearly $17 million from Ohtani's bank account without Ohtani's knowledge or permission and for signing a false tax return.

Shohei Ohtani with interpreter  Ippei Mizuhara at Dodgers introductory press conference.
Shohei Ohtani (left) speaks with interpreter Ippei Mizuhara (right) prior to being introduced by the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on Dec. 14, 2023.Meg Oliphant / Getty Images

What has Ohtani said about the controversy?

On March 25, Ohtani held a press conference at Dodger Stadium in which he addressed the matter, although he did not take questions from the media. He spoke and said he was the victim of theft, while his words were translated by his new translator, Will Ireton.

“I’m very sad and shocked that someone who I trusted has done this,” he said.

“I never bet on baseball or any other sports or never have asked somebody to do that on my behalf, and I have never went through a bookmaker to bet on sports,” he added.

Ohtani also reiterated that Mizuhara took the money without his knowledge.

Shohei Ohtani during Seoul Series game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres on March 20, 2024.
Shohei Ohtani reacts after the third inning during the Dodgers' season-opening series against the San Diego Padres in Seoul, South Korea, on March 20.Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

“Ippei has been stealing money from my account and has told lies,” he said.

“I do want to make it clear that I never bet on sports or have willfully sent money to the bookmaker,” he added.

What is baseball's stance on gambling?

The IRS conducted a criminal investigation of Mizuhara and Major League Baseball launched its own investigation. Major League Baseball is very clear about its stance on gambling.

“Any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has no duty to perform, shall be declared ineligible for one year,” it says in its rules.

Shohei Ohtani with Los Angeles Dodgers during spring training.
Shohei Ohtani warms up near the batting cage in Goodyear, Arizona, before taking some swings during Dodgers spring training on Feb. 14.Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

“Any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform, shall be declared permanently ineligible,” it continues.

Further, associating with a bookmaker carries a punishment that can be handed down by the Major League Baseball commissioner.

“Any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee who places bets with illegal book makers, or agents for illegal book makers, shall be subject to such penalty as the Commissioner deems appropriate in light of the facts and circumstances of the conduct,” the rules state.