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Ex-Dodgers slugger Yasiel Puig’s selective prosecution claim meets skeptical judge

The former Major League Baseball player claims the government gave non-Black individuals multiple opportunities to amend the answers they gave to federal investigators but charged him with lying instead.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig's argument that he was singled out for prosecution on charges of lying to federal agents about his involvement with an illegal sports betting ring because he is Black appeared to gain little traction at a hearing Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles tentatively denied a request by Puig to force the prosecution to turn over a slew of information to his defense team, including all communications among the agents and with any witnesses, or attorneys for witnesses, regarding any interviews and any charging decisions in the case, to support his selective prosecution claim.

The judge took his request under submission without issuing a final ruling.

Puig, 32, agreed to plead guilty last year to lying to federal agents when they questioned him about his involvement with an illegal bookmaking network. However, when it was time to enter his guilty plea before the judge in November, he declined to do so. He wasn't present at Wednesday's hearing.

His lawyers have since claimed that Puig, a Cuba-born Black man, was charged with lying during a January 2022 interview about his connection with an illegal betting ring because government agents operate by different standards when it comes Black and non-Black individuals, either because of implicit or explicit biases.

"The evidence shows that the government was inclined to view Black men as untruthful and uncooperative and non-Black men as truthful and cooperative, despite evidence to the contrary," his lawyers said in requesting the judge to order the government to turn over the additional information they asked for. "And when non-Black men made false statements, they were given the opportunity to correct or rehabilitate those statements, and were not charged."

Keri Curtis Axel, one of Puig's attorneys, said after the hearing she hoped her arguments would impact the judge's final decision on the request.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Mitchell argued at the hearing that Puig's situation was unique in so far as the strength of the evidence against the former Major League Baseball player was compelling. The government has a recording in which Puig admitted lying during his interview, according to the prosecutor, and his former lawyer never asked to clarify Puig's statements following the interview.

The case against Puig stems from a Homeland Security and IRS investigation into an online sports gambling business called Sand Island Sports. Wayne Nix, a former minor league baseball player in Southern California, ran a illegal bookmaking business for current and former professional athletes to place bets on sporting events. In 2019, Puig allegedly started placing bets with Nix's business and within a month had racked up $282,900 in losses.

In January 2022, federal agents interviewed Puig about his involvement with Nix's business, and according to the government, he lied about discussing sports betting with one of Nix's agents and withheld information about this agent's role in Puig's betting and in settling his gambling debts.

The investigation into the Sand Island Sports became public in 2020, and numerous individuals, including some of the principals and agents, were interviewed by the investigators, as well as athletes and managers who placed bets, according to Puig's lawyers. But the interviews with Black individuals such as Puig were conducted markedly different, they said, than those with individual who weren't Black.

The Sand Island Sports agents, none of whom were Black, were consistently treated respectfully, the attorneys said, and when they misstated the facts or even attempted to destroy evidence, they were given the chance to clarify their statements and they weren't charged with making false statements or obstruction of justice.

But Black athletes and managers, who had only placed bets, were admonished before their interviews that it is a felony to lie to federal investigators, and according to Puig's lawyers, the agents utilized threats of prosecution to control the interviews.

One prominent Black athlete was cold-called by the government and answered questions without having a lawyer present, according to Puig's attorneys. When asked if he had ever bet on a game through Nix, he initially said he didn't recall but then corrected himself and said he had.

"The government agent conducting the interview then spontaneously admonished him that it was a crime to make false statements and reminded him that Martha Stewart had been charged with a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001," Puig's lawyers said, referring to the law against lying to federal agents. "The IRS agent never did this when interviewing non-Black individuals, even when their failures of memory were more intentional."

At the hearing, Judge Gee said there had been other people interviewed who weren't Black as part of the investigation and who were given a similar admonishment not to lie. She also pointed out that a number of well-known Black athletes had been interviewed but that only one of them, Puig, was charged.

If the prosecution had really been based on race, the judge asked Axel, wouldn't it have been easier for them to charge one of the Black athletes in the U.S. instead of Puig who had to be extradited from Korea.

Puig was interviewed by U.S. agents over a video link because he was playing in Korea at the time. The government, his lawyers said, treated him just as it had other Black men in the investigation by telling him at the outset of the interview that lying was a crime that could be prosecuted. One of the agents read the text of 18 U.S.C. § 1001 to Puig, based on a purported “protocol” but they only did that with one other of the 22 interviews Puig's lawyers reviewed. That was with a Black manager.

During the January 2022 interview, agents asked Puig about events that had occurred more than 2 1/2 years before, of which he didn't have perfect recollection, according to his attorneys. As with other Black men, the government bullied and berated Puig and his lawyers by accusing him of insufficiently cooperating. When Puig attempted to use his phone messages to refresh his memory, his lawyers said, the government terminated the interview.

While the government gave multiple non-Black individuals the opportunity to clarify and rehabilitate their statements, with Puig the government attempted to build a false statements claim against him from the beginning, his lawyers claimed.

"The stark disparity between how the investigation team treated Puig and other Black interviewees versus non-Black interviews sent a crystal-clear message — Black men who did not meet the investigation team’s definition of cooperation (a standard that was markedly different for Black men than non-Black men) would be publicly punished and made an example of," according to Puig's attorneys.

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