Former Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig has been indicted on a new charge in the ongoing federal case against him connected to an illegal sports betting probe, documents obtained by Heavy show. The baseball star was charged in August 2022 with making false statements. On January 20, 2023, Puig was indicted on a charge of obstruction of justice, court records show.
In November 2022, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California announced the charges against Puig and said the former MLB outfielder would be pleading guilty. But ahead of his November 29 plea hearing, Puig backed out of the agreement and decided to plead not guilty, according to court records.
Federal prosecutors said Puig lied to federal investigators about sports bets he placed through an illegal gambling ring, according to the press release. Puig, who most recently played for the Kiwoom Heroes in South Korea during the 2022 season, is free on supervised release pending a trial tentatively set to begin in April 2023. Puig had agreed to pay a fine as part of the plea agreement, court records show.
Puig said in a statement provided by his attorneys, “I want to clear my name. I never should have agreed to plead guilty to a crime I did not commit.” Keri Axel, of Waymaker LLP, added in a statement, “At the time of his January 2022 interview, Mr. Puig, who has a third-grade education, had untreated mental-health issues, and did not have his own interpreter or criminal legal counsel with him. We have reviewed the evidence, including significant new information, and have serious concerns about the allegations made against Yasiel.”
Former minor league baseball player Wayne Nix pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return and conspiracy to operate an illegal gambling business and is awaiting sentencing. Nix is accused of starting the bookmaking ring after 2001.
Federal prosecutors said the gambling ring took in millions of dollars in bets that were facilitated by a Costa Rica-based gambling website, according to court documents. Several others, including former MLB pitcher Erik Hiljus, have also pleaded guilty. Hiljus was accused of being one of Nix’s agents in the gambling ring.
Nix and his agents would take bets from clients and then place them on Sand Island Sports, an offshore betting site, and then pay them winnings or collect losses, according to court documents. The gambling ring was based in California, in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas, and included high-profile customers, prosecutors said. They wrote in court documents, “Through contacts he had developed during his own career in professional sports, Nix created a client list of current and former professional athletes, and others.”
According to court documents, Nix’s clients and associates included a professional football player who gave Nix a check for $245,000, a MLB coach gave Nix $4,000, a baseball analyst who sent Nix $8,000, a baseball player who owed Nix money and a sports broadcaster who told Nix he was going to refinance his house to pay off gambling debts. Nix also tried to recruit a former professional football player to be an agent in his gambling scheme, federal prosecutors said. The clients and associates were not named in court documents.
Puig Is Accused of Betting on Tennis, Football & Baseball & at One Point Owed More Than $200,000 in Gambling Debts, Prosecutors Say
According to court documents, Puig worked with an unnamed agent in Nix’s operation to wager on sports, including tennis, football and baseball, and racked up $282,900 in gambling debts by June 2019. Nix didn’t allow Puig to place any bets until his debt was paid up, according to prosecutors. In June 2019, Puig paid off the debt.
“After Puig paid the $200,000, Nix provided Puig direct access to the betting websites. From July 4, 2019 to September 29, 2019, Puig placed 899 additional bets on tennis, football and basketball games through the websites,” prosecutors said in the press release. “In January 2022, federal investigators interviewed Puig in the presence of his lawyer. During the interview, despite being warned that lying to federal agents is a crime, Puig lied several times. During the interview, he falsely stated that he only knew Agent 1 from baseball and that he never discussed gambling with him, when in fact Puig discussed sports betting with Agent 1 hundreds of times on the telephone and via text message.”
Prosecutors added, “After agents showed Puig a copy of one of the cashiers’ checks he purchased on June 25, 2019, Puig falsely stated that he did not know the person who instructed him to send $200,000 in cashiers’ checks to Individual A. Puig also falsely stated that he had placed a bet online with an unknown person on an unknown website that resulted in a loss of $200,000. In March 2022, Puig sent Individual B an audio message via WhatsApp in which he admitted to lying to federal agents during the interview two months earlier.”
IRS Criminal Investigation Los Angeles Field Office Special Agent in Charge Tyler Hatcher said in a statement, “When given the opportunity to be truthful about his involvement with Nix’s Gambling businesses, Mr. Puig chose not to. Mr. Puig’s lies hindered the legal and procedural tasks of the investigators and prosecutors.”
HSI Los Angeles Acting Special Agent in Charge Eddy Wang added, “Lying to federal agents is a serious offense. HSI Los Angeles and our partners will actively pursue those that seek to hinder the fair administration of justice.”
Puig’s Attorneys Say He Was Interviewed in Korea via Zoom
In a December 2022 court filing by Puig’s lawyer, Keri Axel, wrote, “The government issued a grand jury subpoena to defendant Puig on December 14, 2021, seeking testimony on February 16, 2022. Given his commitment to play baseball in the Republic of Korea in summer 2022, and his need to leave for Korea in February, Puig’s counsel requested that Puig be permitted to sit for an interview in lieu of grand jury testimony, and the government agreed.” Axel added:
The interview took place by video conference on January 27, 2022; Puig was at a hotel and had just returned from a workout. The only person in the room with Puig was a civil attorney who had assisted him in a prior civil matter; the rest of the participants on the interview, including the interpreter, were in different locations on Zoom. Puig did not have his own interpreter, and the attorney who was with him did not speak Spanish.
Prior to the interview, the prosecutors did not tell Puig’s attorney what the interview would be about, other than that it would be about online gambling. Although it is common to request records from a witness to jog memory and because records are often the best evidence—particularly when historical communications are at issue—the government did not request any records from. Puig. He therefore had no preparation or context to evaluate the government’s questions, although they were asking about communications that took place more than 2 years before the interview. As Puig attempted to refresh his own recollection during the interview using messages on his own device, the government terminated the interview.
Axel said investigators didn’t contact Puig’s attorney after the interview or indicate they had any issues with it. They also didn’t request any documents or a follow-up interview with Puig, Axel wrote. Then in May 2022, prosecutors sent Puig a target letter indicating he was a target of a criminal investigation with possible charges of making a false statement and obstruction of justice.
Puig’s attorneys said their client was told by prosecutors in June 2022 that they planned to indict him soon on those charges and if they did, they would seek an arrest warrant through Interpol that would lead to his arrest in Korea. Prosecutors gave Puig two days to decide if he was interested in pleading guilty ahead of the indictment, according to his attorneys. His lawyers asked for a plea deal on only the making false statements charge and a deal was eventually struck, Axel wrote. She added:
After finishing his baseball season, Puig returned from Korea on November 13, 2022. On November 15, Puig appeared in this Court for an initial appearance and arraignment. He waived his right to an indictment and preliminary hearing; and a change of plea proceeding was promptly scheduled for November 23, 2022.
On that date, Puig appeared with counsel and requested additional time to explore a factual innocence defense. Counsel for Puig informed this Court about the procedural history of Mr. Puig’s charges, the urgency required by the government’s plea agreement in light of Puig’s ongoing baseball season and potential international arrest, and the facts that counsel had reviewed and developed with Puig since he returned from Korea and was able to meet with counsel in person. Specifically, counsel informed this Court that, in preparation for the change of plea hearing, counsel and Puig found evidence suggesting that other individuals had sought to induce him to collude or obstruct the government’s investigation but Puig had repeatedly refused – at a minimum contradicting the government’s obstruction allegations. Prior to the hearing, defense counsel had requested and reviewed interview reports that corroborated some of Puig’s statements, casting doubt on the government’s prosecution theory.
Puig’s attorney wrote in the December 2022 filing, “On November 28, 2022, counsel informed the government that, after reviewing the materials and further exploring the facts with Puig, he did not intend to enter a guilty plea, and counsel together informed this Court, who took the hearing off calendar.”
Axel wrote that Puig was under “difficult” conditions while deciding whether to accept a plea deal. “As defendant Puig was weighing his options, he was also enduring a grinding work schedule half-way across the world in Korea. For a charge that did not present a danger to anyone, and presented no statute of limitations issues, it is not clear why there was a need for haste, but the government clearly was in a hurry,” the filing read.
Axel added, “This presented the defendant with a Hobson’s choice: agree to a plea agreement or face a mid-season arrest and extradition, ruining his season and interfering with his only source of gainful employment. The impossibility of this choice was compounded by the fact that defendant had new counsel, was 17-hours away in a different time zone, has a third-grade education, ADHD, and needed a Cuban translator to understand the government’s complex plea agreement and alleged Factual Basis.”
Puig, Who Faces Possible Prison Time, Placed the Bets Through a Former College Baseball Player Who Works as a Private Instructor, Prosecutors Say
According to the new indictment, Puig is accused of obstructing justice by providing false information to federal investigators by falsely sitting he had never discussed sports gambling with the unnamed agent in Nix’s operation. Prosecutors said in court documents that Puig “withheld information about Agent 1’s involvement with bets made by defendant Puig and the payment of defendant Puig’s gambling debts.”
The unnamed agent, according to the new indictment, was a former college baseball player and private baseball coach. According to court documents, Puig met him in 2019 at a youth baseball camp and he helped Puig prepare for the upcoming baseball season. Puig began placing bets in May 2019, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors wrote in the indictment, “As part of the Nix Gambling Business, Nix and Agent 1 used the Sand Island Sports websites and call center to create accounts through which wagers would be placed and tracked, and to set credit limits for bettors. Nix provided bettors with account numbers and passwords for the Sand Island Sports websites and directed the bettors to use the Sand Island Sports websites to place bets with the Nix Gambling Business. Bettors would place bets online through the Sand Island Sports websites, and through Nix, Agent 1, and others working at Nix’s direction.”
Puig faces up to five years in prison on the charge of making false statements and up to 10 years in prison on the charge of obstruction of justice, according to court records. Both charges are felonies. Puig’s trial is currently scheduled to begin April 25, 2023, in Los Angeles. Axel wrote: