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What we know about the Department of Justice’s MLB investigation

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Multiple teams and the league office are in hot water due to reported corrupt practices surrounding foreign prospects.

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Sports Illustrated published a report revealing that the U.S. Department of Justice has undertaken a “sweeping probe” of MLB teams’ international signing practices and corruption throughout the sport. The Dodgers are most often cited in the article, but other teams and the league office itself are also apparently involved.

In the report SI published a selection of emails and documents taken from a collection of evidence that apparently pushed the DOJ to begin this investigation in the first place, including “videotapes, photographs, confidential legal briefs, receipts, copies of player visas and passport documents, internal club emails and private communications by franchise executives in 2015 and 2016.” None of which looks like good news for the teams involved in the probe.

Teams getting creative, and possibly breaking the law, to circumvent the league’s international signing rules and acquire the best players from Latin America isn’t new. In recent years the pressure has been on for the league to clean these practices up, but with the DOJ involved it now appears well out of the league’s hands and the consequences could be more serious than ever before.

While that can only be good for the health the league and all of its players in the long run, right now teams could be in some very hot water. Here’s an explainer of what we know about the investigation.

How did the investigation start?

According to the report, an “MLB insider” tipped off the FBI during Spring Training, handing over information about the possibly corrupt practices that is one of the worst kept secrets in the sport. From there, the DOJ’s Fraud Section got involved and took over.

Which teams are involved?

Right now, the Dodgers and Braves. The Dodgers are the most oft-cited team in this report with multiple concerning details like employees altering books and an apparent mafia-style subsection of their organization based in Latin America. Current Phillies manager and former Dodgers Director of Player Development Gabe Kapler is cited specifically. Player development staffers working for the Braves have also been reportedly subpoenaed, as has a prominent agent.

While Major League Baseball itself has not yet been contacted about the investigation directly, according to their spokesman, SI notes that probably won’t stay true for long.

What are they being investigated for?

Mainly, corruption tied to the recruitment and signing of international baseball players — often from places like Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American countries. This investigation surrounding shady practices in Central and South America specifically focuses on possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

What is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act?

The FCPA, originally enacted in 1977, broadly makes it “unlawful for certain classes of persons and entities to make payments to foreign government officials to assist in obtaining or retaining business” and requires United States-based corporations to “make and keep books and records that accurately and fairly reflect the transactions of the corporation and devise and maintain an adequate system of internal accounting controls.”

Succinctly, and probably most important to this case, the act “bans the use of corrupt efforts to secure an improper advantage to obtain or retain business.” Which all seems to apply nicely to teams in a professional sports league allegedly using criminal practices in foreign countries to gain an unfair advantage on the field.

Is this the first time teams have been investigated for international signing shadiness?

Nope! Last year, the Braves were sanctioned for circumventing international signing rules over multiple seasons. Atlanta’s 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 and were prevented from bargaining at full strength for top Latin American prospects until 2021, and didn’t get back the $16.48 million they had paid out in bonuses to the prospects taken from them.

In 2016, the Red Sox were similarly but not as harshly sanctioned for circumventing international signing rules the season prior. They lost five prospects and weren’t allowed to participate in the 2016-2017 signing period.

What’s the most suspicious thing we know about the new investigation?

Well, the Dodgers straight up sorted their employees into a chart of who was doing the most crimes and how bad the crimes were. So probably that. The chart involves a list of names sorted by “level of egregious behavior.” Employees got points(?) based on whether their involvement of all of the Dodgers’ seemingly many and varied crimes was minimal, moderate, significant, serious, or criminal.

Yes, the Dodgers as an organization made a chart of how criminal each employee was and then actually included a category straight up called “criminal.” Then apparently kept it around for someone to turn over to the feds. We didn’t say anywhere in this post that these teams were smart about the extensive corruption infesting the sport.

Did the Dodgers do other things besides keep an organized list of employees ranked by their level of participation in criminal activities?

Oh yeah they did.

On top of that chart (which is genuinely funny in addition to being truly wild) and that whole “our Latin American team is operating a mafia-type situation on foreign soil” thing, the report also cites the Dodgers doing other fun criminal things. For example, betraying an unnamed prominent agent by signing a foreign prospect before the agent could officially sign him as a client.

They are also suspected of using loopholes in U.S. immigration law to get top Cuban players to the United States in direct opposition to the current US embargo with Cuba (one of the worst kept secrets in baseball and the least surprising law breaking in this whole report) and either shredding contracts before MLB saw them or doctoring documents before sending them to the Office of the Commissioner.

Also in the evidence (although with senders and recipients redacted so they can’t be confirmed to be attached to any one team) are emails detailing moving a player from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to Haiti before hopefully having him legally travel on to the United States with a valid visa.

How far along is the investigation?

It’s hard to tell at exactly what point the DOJ is at in this ongoing, and clearly there is a lot more that could come out not just about the Dodgers or Braves but with more teams or front office personnel. But from what we know, it appears they have quite a few people cooperating or subpoenaed so far.

The list of those subpoenaed includes the Braves staffers and the aforementioned top agent, MVP Sports co-founder Manny Paula, although Paula is currently believed to be on the victim side of this whole thing rather than part of any criminal activity. (No indication whether he is the same prominent agent the Dodgers double crossed or not.)

Other witnesses included the source who initially provided that big pile of evidence to the FBI in the first place, as well as “alleged victims of smuggling or human trafficking operations” who have handed over evidence. Some of these witness have reportedly already testified before a grand jury, although the SI report does not identify which ones.