DOJ Investigating MLB’s Recruitment of Foreign Players

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On October 2, 2018, Sports Illustrated published a report stating that the United States Department of Justice “has begun a sweeping probe into possible corruption tied to [MLB’s] recruitment of international players.” The report published numerous emails, documents, videotapes, photographs, confidential legal briefs, receipts, copies of player visas and passport documents, internal club emails, and private communications by franchise executives. Reportedly, MLB teams, like the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves, have attempted to circumvent MLB rules and United States immigration law in their attempt to sign and acquire the best players in Latin America and the Caribbean.

According to the Sports Illustrated report, the investigation started last spring when an “MLB Insider” informed the FBI about the possibility corrupt practices. From there, the DOJ’s Fraud Section began to investigate the matter. Reportedly, the DOJ is investigating potential corruption tied to the recruitment and signing of international baseball players from Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and many other Latin America and Caribbean countries.

Unlike United States and Canadian-born amateurs, players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are not subject to a draft. Simply put three is an open competition among the various MLB teams for players from these regions. Previously, the MLB imposed strict limits on the amount of money an MLB team could offer an international player in signing bonuses, but the goal of the limits was to reduce labor costs, not to stem corruption. Apparently, the recruitment process has become so corrupt that it requires an MLB team to have a physical presence in Caribbean and Latin American countries that involve handlers, stash houses, experts in U.S. immigration law, agents, doctored official documents, and “buscones,” unregulated street-level agents who often take a financial stake in the negotiations. Not surprisingly, this influence has apparently opened the door to all manners of corruption and back channel dealings.

Some of the more sinister acts spelled out in the documents, specifically by the Los Angeles Dodgers, shows executives went so far as to generate data which measured the perceived “level of egregious behavior” displayed by 15 employees in Latin America. A scale was created, using a 1 to 5 ratio: if an employee received a score of 1, they were deemed an “innocent bystander.” If an employee received a score of 5, they were deemed “criminal.” In 2015, five Los Angeles Dodgers received a score of 5. Further, internal communications by some of the Los Angeles Dodgers executives showed their concerns about the “mafia” entrenched in some of their operations, including one employee who dealt “with the agents and buscones” in a way that was “unbelievably corrupt.” Other personnel were suspected of being tied to altered books, shady dealings, and one reference to how the Los Angeles Dodgers “f—–” over a prominent MLB agent by signing an international player before the agent could secure him as a client.

The documents also describe efforts to circumvent MLB rules, which require Cuban players to establish residency in another country before negotiating and signing with an MLB team. Due to the U.S. embargo of Cuba, Cuban players cannot enter the U.S. directly under current immigration laws; however, efforts were made to falsify documents and some, like Yasiel Puig, have to spend time in other Latin American or Caribbean countries before coming to the United States. Lastly, the documents also show a serious of text messages between two Los Angeles Dodgers executives, from November 2015, where they discussed the need to “shred” a contract that they had signed with a player from Latin American. Reportedly, Los Angeles Dodgers had signed the contract before the MLB had the chance to approve the document.

MLB practice of “getting creative,” in order to acquire the best players from Latin America and the Caribbean is nothing new. In fact, for years the MLB has tried to put pressure on teams to clean up their act. For example, last year, the Atlanta Braves were sanctioned after several years of circumventing MLB international signing rules. Atlanta Braves’ international scouting chief, Gordon Blakeley, was suspended for one year, then-GM, John Coppolella, was banned from baseball for life, the team lost 13 foreign prospects, the team was prevented from bargaining at full strength for top Latin American prospects until 2021, and the team did not recoup the $16.48 million they paid to the Latin American prospects. In addition, in 2016, the Boston Red Sox were also sanctioned for circumventing MLB international signing rules. The Boston Red Sox’ lost five prospects and were not allowed to participate in the 2016-2017 signing period.

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