Yankees prospects may have been forced to kick back bonus money

Updated: August 5, 2008, 12:48 PM ET
By T.J. Quinn and Mark Fainaru-Wada | ESPN.com

Major League Baseball investigators are looking into accusations that several New York Yankees prospects from the Dominican Republic were forced to kick back portions of their signing bonuses to one or more team employees, several sources told ESPN.

The revelation is one of several developments in an ongoing investigation of a financial scandal involving the signing of players from the Dominican Republic. Last week, the Red Sox's Dominican scouting supervisor, Pablo Lantigua, was fired after MLB investigators confronted him about allegedly skimming signing bonuses, according to an MLB source.

Sources also told ESPN that the investigation is expected to implicate roughly 20 people on "a handful" of teams before it is complete. Investigators also have expanded their probe into Venezuela, where many major league clubs have player academies. "Things are coming to a head," one source familiar with MLB's investigation said.

The Yankees placed several employees on leave pending the results of baseball's probe into the possible skimming of bonuses in the Dominican Republic, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

The employees scouted in the Dominican Republic, the newspaper said, citing an unidentified person in baseball who was briefed on the matter. Their names and jobs were not revealed in the report.

Four MLB investigators returned to the United States from the Dominican last week and are preparing a report for the commissioner's office. While clubs have fired several officials already implicated in the scandal, MLB has worked closely with the FBI, which is conducting its own investigation into the alleged skimming of bonuses.

One source briefed on MLB investigators' findings said he believed "less than a half-dozen" teams would be implicated, including the Yankees, Red Sox, Nationals and White Sox.

The 20 or so employees, based in both the United States and the Dominican Republic, either received money or were aware of others who did, the source said.

Sources said FBI agents have not traveled to the Dominican, and contrary to media reports, have limited their probe thus far to allegations surrounding fired White Sox official David Wilder, Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden and Nationals special assistant Jose Rijo.

Wilder has not commented and did not return several phone calls. Bowden previously confirmed to ESPN that he had spoken with federal authorities but insisted he has done nothing wrong; he said FBI agents had asked him nothing about his own activities. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman declined to comment. Officials with Major League Baseball and the Red Sox on Monday did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

The accusations against the Yankees surfaced more than a month ago, sources said, but were augmented by an anonymous letter sent to the club shortly after investigators began looking into the charges. The letter listed the names of several prospects and the amount of money allegedly skimmed from their signing bonuses.

Two sources familiar with the letter's contents said Yankees officials turned it over to MLB investigators and have cooperated.

One of the players named in the letter was well-regarded prospect Kelvin DeLeon, a 17-year-old outfielder who signed for $1.1 million last year. He is currently playing for the Yankees' Dominican League club.

Investigators are looking at the involvement of Yankees scouting official Carlos Rios, sources said.

The scandal began to break in March when Wilder, then the scouting director for the White Sox, was stopped in Miami by U.S. Customs officials while trying to bring about $40,000 in cash back from the Dominican Republic. Sources said Wilder, who has not been criminally charged, has been cooperating with the FBI. He and two scouts were fired by the White Sox in May.

Wilder and others have been accused of inflating the value of some Dominican prospects, then demanding a kickback from the players' families once the players were signed. Critics have long complained that street agents known as "buscones" had been taking large cuts of players' bonuses as fees, but the news that scouts and other officials employed by the clubs were taking money has jolted the island.

"The families went along with it because they were still getting the money," one source said. "[The scouts] were really stealing money from the clubs."

Mark Fainaru-Wada and T.J. Quinn are reporters for ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Fainaru-Wada can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com. Quinn can be reached at tjquinn31@yahoo.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

T.J. Quinn joined ESPN in November 2007 as an investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit, which is charged with developing long-form, investigative features to be presented across multiple platforms.