Yasiel Puig claimed racial bias in sports betting probe. Feds say he was just trying to avoid trial

Yasiel Puig at a news conference surrounded by four other people.
Former Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, center, at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Feb. 11.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Federal prosecutors are rejecting claims of anti-Black bias in their criminal case against former Dodger Yasiel Puig, calling the allegations part of a last-ditch attempt to avoid trial — one that also included a “personal appeal” to the prosecutors’ boss with a request that it be kept secret.

Puig faces charges of lying to federal authorities and obstruction of justice in the investigation of a sports gambling operation run by former minor league baseball player Wayne Nix.

At a news conference and in court filings, Puig’s attorneys have alleged federal prosecutors were “inclined to view Black men as untruthful” and treated white defendants in the investigation differently.


But in a court filing Wednesday, prosecutors vehemently denied the allegation and referred to it as a hollow “eleventh-hour assertion.” In the 40-page filing, Assistant U.S. Atty. Jeff Mitchell argued that Puig’s attorneys only brought up the accusation of bias after other attempts to avoid a trial failed.

Those attempts included a “private personal appeal” to Martin Estrada, U.S. attorney for the Central District of California and the boss of the federal prosecutors in Puig’s criminal case. In the Nov. 28 letter to Estrada, Puig’s attorney Keri Axel, a former federal prosecutor in Southern California, pushed for the case to be resolved in a diversion program, in which the criminal charges could be dismissed or reduced.

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Axel also implored the U.S. attorney “to take a meeting, as there are things I can only say privately,” and asked Estrada not to notify the prosecutors on the case about the letter’s contents.

The letter is cited in court filings but is currently under seal.

Although, according to prosecutors, there had been three previous attempts to refer the case for diversion, the letter to Estrada was the first time Puig’s defense attorneys alleged “selective prosecution issues and the implicit biases of government agents,” they said.

Axel told The Times that — despite the request — she expected that the letter would eventually be shared with the prosecutors in the case. She said she felt it was proper to bring up concerns of selective prosecution to Estrada first, as a supervisor, instead of bringing the allegation to prosecutors themselves.

“It would be typical when you’re raising selective prosecution issues,” Axel said. “You would make that to the supervisor.”


Axel would not go into specifics about the things she said she could only tell Estrada privately, but she said defense attorneys wanted to notify Estrada and the “front office” about “facts supporting Puig’s innocence” and about the prosecutors assigned to the case.

“We wanted to talk about the prosecution team’s biases while not attacking their character as people,” Axel said. “I believe a meeting could have been a productive forum to discuss these issues.”

According to court filings, Puig is accused of lying about his involvement and denying he placed bets with the gambling business, despite allegedly making 899 bets on games and incurring at one point a debt of more than $280,000.

Puig initially signed a plea agreement in July 2022 that could have resulted in a sentence of probation and no prison time if he’d pleaded guilty to a single charge of lying to federal agents. Despite the signed agreement, Puig’s attorneys made multiple requests to prosecutors for pretrial diversion, with the possibility for lesser charges or their dismissal.

Last year on Oct. 7, Nov. 17 and Nov. 22, Mitchell says, Puig’s attorneys asked for the diversion, citing Puig’s minimal education, ADHD, cultural background, and claims that he had been entrapped by investigators and targeted because of his “celebrity status.” None of those requests, prosecutors said, mentioned racial bias. All of them were denied.

“Only after the government rejected defendant’s multiple requests for diversion and showed that he could not have been entrapped, and almost five months after defendant signed the plea agreement, did defendant claim for the first time that he was a victim of race-based selective prosecution,” according to the filing.


Axel said there was no request for diversion made on Nov. 17.

Days after the failed Nov. 22 attempt to refer the case to diversion, Puig’s attorney sent the letter to Estrada, requesting the private meeting to discuss the case.

That request, as well as the request for pretrial diversion, was denied by the chief of the criminal division, according to the filing. Despite Axel’s request, prosecuting attorneys were also notified of the letter to their boss.

Axel said prosecutors’ claim that racial bias concerns were raised at the eleventh hour was “patently false.”

“The defense raised the issue immediately upon discovery,” she said.

It was after defense attorneys received an interview report on Nov. 22, the week of Thanksgiving, that defense attorneys notified prosecutors via email about disparate treatment, she said. Defense attorneys raised the issue as quickly as they could, she said, despite the holiday break.

The following Monday, she said, the letter to Estrada claiming implicit bias was sent.

Documents detailing interviews from the investigation, provided by prosecutors as part of the discovery process, have strengthened defense attorneys’ claims that racial bias played a role, Axel maintains.

Puig ultimately withdrew from his plea agreement and vowed to fight the charges at trial. After he refused to follow through with the plea agreement, federal prosecutors filed an additional charge of obstruction of justice.


Axel at the time called the decision an “unfair prosecution.”

Axel went on to allege in court filings and at a news conference that federal agents took an aggressive posture with Puig and other Black individuals connected to the investigation.

Axel pointed to a warning Puig was given at the beginning of an interview with an agent from the Internal Revenue Service that lying during the interview could result in federal charges.

In court filings, Puig’s attorneys also cited an unnamed employee of the gambling company in question who allegedly made “demonstrably false” statements about his communication with Puig and wasn’t admonished the same way by federal agents.

Federal officials deny the claim, and state in Wednesday’s filings that Puig “was treated fairly and the government’s charging decisions were not affected by race in any way.”

Thirty-two of the 34 people who were interviewed in the investigation were “admonished” and warned that lying to federal agents could mean federal charges, according to the filing.

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Prosecutors also denied claims that non-Black interviewees were given a chance to correct false statements, while Black interviewees were only warned about the potential for prosecution.


Federal officials gave all witnesses a chance to correct wrong or false statements, including Puig, according to the filing. After Puig allegedly gave false information to the agents, officials privately informed his attorneys they had evidence directly contradicting his statements, according to court documents, but Puig didn’t change his comments.

Axel maintains Black witnesses were treated differently.

“The government claims all witnesses were given an opportunity to correct,” she said, “but for Black men, they assumed they were initially lying while white men were generally given the benefit of the doubt about whether they were suffering from well-intentioned memory failures.”

Prosecutors argue that not only did Puig give bad information to investigators and refuse to correct it, but evidence also suggests he told others he was aware that he’d lied.

Weeks after his interview, Puig sent a recorded message via WhatsApp to an associate about his interview with federal agents.

“I no said nothing, I not talking,” Puig allegedly said in the message. “I said that I only know [Agent 1] from baseball.”

Axel said that, although she couldn’t discuss the context of the message, it was “in fact an attempt to avoid meddling in the government’s investigation.”


“The evidence will show that Puig had no intent to obstruct the investigation,” she said.

Prosecutors contend that the message “is powerful evidence of guilt.”