A South Florida sports agent and a baseball trainer accused of smuggling top Cuban ballplayers into the United States attacked the prosecution’s case Wednesday, with their lawyers saying they were not involved in any illegal activities that led to multimillion-dollar contracts with major league teams.
Agent Bart Hernandez “has been falsely accused,” his defense attorney Jeffrey Marcus told a Miami federal jury during opening statements of the trial. “You’re going to hear that Bart Hernandez had nothing to do with how the Cuban ballplayers came out of Cuba.”
Miami baseball trainer Julio Estrada developed more than 20 Cuban ballplayers for the big leagues in Mexico and the Dominican Republic after they were smuggled out of Cuba and played no role in that illicit activity, argued his attorney, Sabrina Puglisi. “Not one player will come in here and say they felt Julio took advantage of them,” she said.
Federal prosecutors, however, described the duo as collaborators with smugglers who brought the talented ballplayers from Cuba to Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They said the pair also conspired to mislead U.S. government officials to obtain waivers so the players’ agent could negotiate with major league teams and acquire visas for them to enter the country.
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“Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Estrada did this because they wanted money,” prosecutor Ron Davidson told the 12-person jury, consisting mostly of women. “Had they continued, they would have received even more.”
Both Hernandez, 53, and Estrada, 34, are accused of conspiring with other convicted associates to pay off boat smugglers, obtain false residency papers and deceive U.S. authorities into believing that the Cuban players were legally eligible to play Major League Baseball. Among their stable of stars: Florida Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin.
Prosecutors said Hernandez and Estrada made millions in tainted fees off the Cuban ballplayers who were brought by smugglers into a third country while their agent negotiated major-league contracts. Because the Cuban ballplayers came through a third country, they were not subject to the draft and as free agents could negotiate lucrative salaries with big-league teams — with their agent charging fees in the millions of dollars.
Hernandez, a licensed Major League Baseball agent, made $2.5 million in fees. Estrada, who is not licensed, made $13 million in fees, including $3.5 million off Abreu’s $68 million contract with the White Sox.
Even Estrada’s attorney, Puglisi, acknowledged: “The Triple Crown winner for Julio Estrada was Jose Abreu.”
Hernandez, head of Global Sports Management in Weston, and Estrada, owner of Total Baseball & Training Inc. in Miami, were charged in 2016 but the investigation into their careers dates back several years. Prosecutors have built the criminal case upon several convicted defendants involved in the smuggling operation of Cuban ballplayers and a paper trail of documents, emails and financial records.
A third defendant, Amin Latouff, a Haitian resident, is accused of assisting Hernandez and Estrada in the smuggling operation. He is at large, according to Davidson.
The indictment alleges that Hernandez, Estrada and Latouff recruited and paid boat captains to smuggle Cuban baseball players and their family members out of Cuba to Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti between 2009 and 1015. Hernandez is accused of directing associates to falsify documents to hide payments to the boat smugglers.
Hernandez, Estrada and others conspired to obtain “false and fraudulent residency documents” on behalf of the Cuban players through a Mexican company, Estrellas del Beisbol. On paper, the owner of the company was Diana Tilbert, who pleaded guilty last year to a federal conspiracy charge and cooperated with authorities. She is expected to testify at trial.
Hernandez used the phony paperwork to obtain lawful licenses from the Treasury Department that allowed the Cuban players to sign contracts with major league teams, according to the indictment. Both Hernandez and Estrada then used those licenses to obtain U.S. visas for most of the players to enter the United States.
In some instances, the three defendants brought the Cuban players and their families into the United States without visas, prosecutors said.