Former MLB all-star outfielder Yasiel Puig has agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge for lying to federal agents as part of their investigation into an illegal sports gambling and money-laundering scheme. Puig, who bet on at least 899 sporting events in 2019, faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
The Justice Department revealed the plea agreement on Monday as court documents were unsealed. Sportico has obtained the charging document issued against Puig on Aug. 29, 2022, in California. As told by Acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie Christensen, Puig partook in an illegal bookmaking business in Los Angeles run by retired minor leaguer Wayne Nix, who pitched in the Oakland A’s organization from 1995 to 2001. Nix, the charging document says, used agents to place and accept bets and also utilized offshore Internet sports gambling websites.
A person only identified as “Agent 1” worked for Nix and met Puig at a youth baseball camp in 2019. Within five months, Puig is accused of “placing bets on sporting events,” with the assistance of a person identified only as “Individual B,” who is identified as a baseball coach.
Puig, who played for the Cincinnati Reds for the first few months of the 2019 season, apparently wasn’t a stellar bettor; by June 2019 he owed Nix $282,000 for losses. Agent 1 and Individual B told Puig to pay up either by check or wire transfer. Puig then withdrew $200,000 from Bank of America and purchased two cashiers’ checks for $100,000. He did not immediately send the checks due to disputing how much he owed—a dispute that led Nix to barring Puig from using his betting website account. Eventually Puig sent the cashiers’ checks via UPS.
Undeterred by initial losses, Puig placed 899 bets on sporting events through Nix’s gambling business between July 4, 2019, and Sept. 29, 2019. On July 31 that same year, Puig was traded by the Reds to the Cleveland Indians in a three-team deal that involved the San Diego Padres.
Puig later became a target of interest to federal investigators. On Jan. 27, 2022, Puig and his attorney were interviewed by investigators. “At the beginning of the interview,” the charging document says, “a special agent from [the Department of Homeland Security] admonished defendant Puig that lying to federal law enforcement agents is a crime, and Puig stated that he understood.”
Puig nonetheless lied; he said he had never discussed sports betting with Agent 1, but telephone records, texts and evidence of 899 bets contradicted his statement. Puig also said he had placed a bet online with an unknown person on an unknown website, resulting in a $200,000 loss, but this was untrue: Puig had placed that get through Agent 1. Puig also lied about who gave him instructions on sending cashiers’ checks to pay off his debt. According to prosecutors, Puig “admitted to lying” in a March 22 audio message sent to Individual B via WhatsApp.
The Justice Department says that Puig placed bets on tennis, football and basketball games. Under MLB rules, any player or coach who bets on “any baseball game” or who uses an “illegal book maker” is subject to a one-year suspension. If a player or coach bets on a game in which they have a duty to perform, they face a lifetime ban. Puig, 31, hasn’t played in MLB since 2019; he played in the Mexican League in 2021 and is currently playing in South Korea’s KBO League.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 held the federal ban on sports betting was unconstitutional, individual state laws vary widely on whether and under which circumstances sports betting is legal. The illegal “black market” for sports betting through offshore websites and facilities has long posed a challenge for the Justice Department, Homeland Security and the FBI.
Nix, meanwhile, pleaded guilty on April 11, 2022, to a conspiracy charge and filing a false tax return. His sentencing is scheduled on March 8, 2023. Former Tigers and A’s pitcher Erik Hiljus, who pitched in the big leagues from 1998 to 2002 and is described by prosecutors as “an agent for Nix’s illegal gambling business,” has agreed to plead guilty to two counts of subscribing to false tax returns.
Puig has a court hearing scheduled in California on Tuesday.