MIAMI – The federal trial over smuggling Cuban players to the U.S. has revealed that officials with the U.S. government and Major League Baseball missed a lot of red flags regarding how the athletes came to America.
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Hundreds of documents shown to jurors in the first week of the trial of sports agent Bartolo Hernandez and baseball trainer Julio Estrada contain what prosecutors say are falsehoods and deceptions intended to illegally speed up the process. They are charged with conspiracy and alien smuggling and face potentially lengthy prison sentences.
A State Department agent, Bryan Baer, testified Thursday that officials depend on the reliability of these documents to allow Cuban players into the U.S.
Yet every one of Hernandez's Cuban players got into the U.S. and signed professional contracts. Some signed multimillion-dollar deals, such as outfielder Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria of the Miami Marlins, outfielder Jorge Soler of the Kansas City Royals and outfielder Leonys Martin of the Seattle Mariners.
The roughly two dozen Cuban players represented by Hernandez had to obtain documents from third countries — chiefly Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic — showing they had established residency there and were no longer living in Cuba. Most had defected by boat to those countries using what prosecutors say were criminal smuggling networks overseen by Hernandez and Estrada.
The players also had to get visas to enter the U.S. and had to prove to MLB officials they were eligible to negotiate contracts as free agents, rather than going into the less lucrative baseball draft. To do that, Cuban players must get permission from the Treasury Department to be "unblocked" because of the U.S. economic embargo of the communist island and its citizens.
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Once that happens, "they could sign with any club for any price," testified Morgan Sword, an MLB vice president of economics and strategy.
But the players' documents raise many questions, even though they were issued by government agencies and not forged.
For example, almost all of them put down the same O-positive blood type. They often listed the same home address in their adopted country. In order to establish residency, they claimed to have what appeared to be phantom jobs, such as auto mechanic, welder, even an "area supervisor" at a Cancun, Mexico, water sports business.
After looking through the players' documents prior to the trial, Treasury Department investigator Timothy Smith said there appeared to be too many similarities to be legitimate.
"As an investigator, when I see patterns, it does raise questions about the origin of a document," Smith said. "I would have looked a lot more closely."
Submitting false documents could have real consequences. The U.S. could have simply denied the players visas or refused to let them become economically "unblocked" Cuban nationals. And if MLB discovered lies in the documents, a player can be suspended for up to a year — meaning no big-money free agent contract during that time.
Hernandez lawyer Jeffrey Marcus asked former MLB investigator Ed Dominguez during the trial if the agent ever asked him to "focus on illegal ways of getting the players into the U.S."
"No," Dominguez said.
"None of Mr. Hernandez's players were suspended for submitting false documents, is that correct?" Marcus asked.
"Correct," said Dominguez.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams, who is presiding over the trial, said with jurors out of the courtroom that it seemed no one at MLB or government agencies looked very closely into the players' submissions.
"Everybody seems to know about all of this. It doesn't seem to have deterred these folks from being able to play," she said. "To me, the subtext was, 'whether or not it was bogus was not my concern.'"
The trial is expected to continue for several weeks, with a number of Cuban-born players and those involved in the alleged smuggling operations likely to testify.
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