South Florida baseball agent Bart Hernandez, who has made a name for himself representing Cuban ballplayers in the Major Leagues, spent the weekend locked up in a federal jail cell after his arrest Friday on charges of smuggling top talent from the island into the United States.
Hernandez’s smuggled clients have included Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin, formerly with the Texas Rangers, authorities said. He is identified as “L.M.T.” in an indictment charging the baseball agent with conspiring with several others to smuggle Cuban ballplayers into this country and doing so for financial gain.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office is seeking to recover $1.5 million from Hernandez and his company, Global Sports Management, stemming from his profits on Martin’s multimillion-dollar contract and at least two other professional ballplayers from Cuba.
Hernandez, who lives in Weston, was released Monday after a federal magistrate judge granted him a $300,000 bond. He also pleaded not guilty to the two-count indictment in Miami federal court.
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His lawyers, Jeff Marcus and Daniel Rashbaum, both former federal prosecutors, described Hernandez as “a talented and ethical sports agent who has always done right by his clients.”
In a statement to the Miami Herald, they criticized the U.S. attorney’s office for filing the criminal charges “on the eve of a long-scheduled Major League Baseball arbitration” over a fee dispute between Hernandez and his former client, Martin. “Bart is innocent and the charges are baseless,” they said, vowing to go to trial.
The Major League Baseball arbitration hearing has been put on hold as a result of the indictment.
Hernandez, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has been under investigation over the past three years. He was implicated in the smuggling scheme by other convicted alien smugglers, including Eliezer Lazo.
In late 2014, Lazo was sentenced to 14 1/2 years in prison for extorting migrants in a smuggling operation that transported more than 1,000 Cubans off the island. Among those fleeing to the United States were up to two dozen Cuban baseball players, who were forced to pay more than the standard fee of $10,000 per passenger, according to court records and investigators.
Lazo pleaded guilty to his role in the smuggling ring, which was run by Joan “Nacho” Garcia. He was killed in 2009. Lazo supplied and did repairs on two boats that took Cubans to Cancun, Mexico, from where they made their way to the U.S. border. He collected payments from migrants and their relatives in Miami. He was paid a salary of $22,000 a month.
While most passengers were charged $10,000 for the journey to Mexico, Martin, the ballplayer, alleged in a civil case that he and his family were held against their will until he paid $1.35 million of his $20 million Rangers contract to a Mexican company run by Lazo and others.
Lazo's attorney, William Clay, declined to comment about Hernandez’s arrest on Friday. According to court records, Lazo has been cooperating with federal prosecutors Ron Davidson and Pat Sullivan, as well as FBI and Homeland Security agents.
At Lazo’s sentencing in November 2014, Davidson said the most “horrifying” aspect of the operation was not what happened to the baseball players or the migrants who arranged to be picked up but to about 100 “party-crashers” who simply got on the boats without making any down payments or agreements with the smugglers.
Garcia was caught in a “squeeze play” with the party-crashers, Clay said, because the Mexican drug cartel that controlled Cancun's port, the Zetas, demanded payment of $3,000 per head and $10,000 per boat.
The party-crashers were mistreated at a stash house in Mexico, Davidson said.
“They were threatened, beaten, restrained,” he said. “There were calls to relatives in the middle of the night — 'Uncle, please help me, give them the money.'
“Mr. Lazo was not making those threats but he picked up payments and directed others to pick up payments. He could have walked away but he decided to promote the conspiracy out of greed.”
Lazo also was ordered to forfeit $1,499,000 from the operation that grossed between $800,000 to $1.5 million.
Although Lazo did not harm migrants, the abuse they suffered was “reasonably foreseeable” to him, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard said as she announced his sentence.
Miami Herald staff writer Linda Robertson contributed to this story.