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Pasadena Appeals Court Hears Arguments Involving Yasiel Puig Plea Agreement

Published on Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | 4:25 am
 

A Pasadena appeals court heard arguments Monday but made no ruling in a bid by federal prosecutors to overturn a lower court’s order refusing the government’s request to use statements former Dodger Yasiel Puig made in a now-withdrawn plea agreement against him at trial for allegedly lying to investigators about his involvement in illegal sports betting.

A Los Angeles federal judge last year determined that the plea deal signed by the baseball player and later withdrawn was not binding because Puig never formally entered his plea before a judge. Plea agreements generally are binding once accepted by the court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rajesh Srinivasan argued before a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that a plea agreement is essentially a “contract” between a defendant and the government and is enforceable once signed by the parties and are not dependent on a formal plea.

However, attorney Elliott Averett, appearing for Puig, maintained that for decades the court has held that plea agreements are not binding until a formal plea has been accepted by the court.

Puig’s plea deal “never said it was enforceable without the judge signing off,” the attorney argued, adding that such a deal is enforceable only “upon the acceptance and approval of the district court.”

Srinivasan countered in rebuttal that “the signature (of the parties) is what makes the agreement effective,” not the judge’s acceptance of the plea.

Upon hearing the arguments, the panel declared the matter submitted and is expected to issue its ruling at a future date.

Prosecutors wish to use at trial the part of the plea agreement in which the Cuban-born baseball player admits his alleged involvement with the betting ring and acknowledges alleged lies to Homeland Security and other investigators.

Puig’s signed plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles — in which he promised to plead guilty to a single count of lying to federal authorities and agreed to pay a fine of at least $55,000 — was filed in August 2022. He had never entered his plea before a judge when he reneged on the deal weeks later.

“I want to clear my name,” Puig said in a statement at the time. “I never should have agreed to plead guilty to a crime I did not commit.”

Prosecutors then charged Puig with obstruction of justice in addition to the original charge of making false statements to federal officials. A trial date has not yet been set.

If convicted of obstruction of justice, 33-year-old Puig could face up to 10 years in prison. The count of making false statements carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Before he withdrew from the plea deal, he was eligible for probation along with the fine.

Puig spent six seasons with the Dodgers and last played in the MLB in 2019 while splitting time between Cincinnati and Cleveland. The outfielder reportedly recently signed with a team that plays in the Mexican League.

According to prosecutors, Puig began placing bets on games in May 2019 through an unidentified man who worked on behalf of an illegal gambling business run by Wayne Nix, 46, of Newport Coast.

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 allegedly lied several times, including when he said that he never discussed gambling with the bookie, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In fact, Puig discussed sports betting with the man hundreds of times on the telephone and via text message, federal prosecutors contend.

Nix pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to operate an illegal sports gambling business and filing a false tax return. He is awaiting a sentencing date.

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