MIAMI -- A Florida-based sports agent and a trainer ran legitimate businesses aimed at getting Cuban baseball players to sign U.S. major league contracts but were not involved with smuggling players from the communist island or falsifying travel documents, their lawyers told a federal jury Wednesday.
Opening statements were held Wednesday in the case against agent Bartolo Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada, both of whom have been charged with conspiracy and alien smuggling. Both face lengthy prison sentences if convicted.
Prosecutors said the pair used shady boat captains, document forgers and phony paperwork to get 20 players to the U.S. quickly so they could sign lucrative free agent contracts totaling some $150 million. Both stood to make millions of dollars from those contracts.
Hernandez attorney Jeffrey Marcus said the agent's only involvement with the players was to negotiate their contracts with professional teams through his company, Global Sports Management, and that his percentage was relatively small at less than 5 percent.
"His business is baseball. It's not smuggling," Marcus told jurors. "This case, I think, is a stretch in many ways, in fact and in law."
Likewise, Estrada lawyer Sabrina Puglisi said her client's role was operating training facilities in Mexico and the Dominican Republic so players could stay sharp while they awaited permission to come to the U.S.
Under Major League Baseball rules, Cuban players who establish residency in a third country can sign lucrative deals with teams as free agents, but would have to submit to the baseball draft and get paid less if they come directly to the U.S.
"Julio has nothing to hide. He did everything above board. He's running a legitimate business," Puglisi said.
No players are accused of wrongdoing. Several Cuban-born players are likely to testify, including Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets, Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox and Adeiny Hechevarria of the Miami Marlins. Puglisi said more than 20 players were trained by Estrada.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Davidson said in his opening statement that some players came to the U.S. with falsified passports or used other forms of deception to establish residency in Mexico and other countries. One tactic, he said, was to submit documents to the Mexican government claiming the players had actual jobs such as a welder, mechanic, even as an "area supervisor" for a jet ski company.
"It was just made up," Davidson said.
Many of the government witnesses are people involved in the ballplayer smuggling -- as well as smuggling of other Cubans directly to the U.S. -- who have pleaded guilty and are testifying in hopes of getting a reduced prison sentence, as well as others hoping to avoid any charges.
The case of Abreu, who set a White Sox rookie record with 36 home runs in 2014 and was named American League rookie of the year, is fairly typical although the money involved is higher than most.
According to the indictment, in August 2013, a boat captain was paid $160,000 to smuggle Abreu from Cuba to Haiti. There fraudulent documents were provided so that Abreu could fly from Port-au-Prince to Miami.
A short time later, Chicago announced Abreu had signed a five-year, $68 million contract. But the court documents show he still owed the smugglers millions and sent them several wire transfers in 2014 totaling at least $5.8 million.
Puglisi said Estrada's only involvement was training Abreu, not only physically but in what to expect once he arrived in the U.S. both on and off the field. She said Estrada was best man at Abreu's wedding and the two keep in close touch, hardly the relationship a player might have with a criminal smuggler.
"Julio Estrada did everything the right way, the legal way," Puglisi said. "He cares about these kids."
The trial is expected to last several weeks.
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