Sports agent guilty in Cuban ballplayer case

April 13, 2007

Miami Herald- Cammy Clark

KEY WEST -- Sports agent Gustavo Dominguez was convicted Thursday of smuggling five Cuban baseball players into the United States.

Dominguez, 48, shook his head as the court clerk read each of the verdicts against him: guilty of conspiracy; guilty of smuggling; guilty of transporting; guilty of harboring. In all, the Key West jury found him guilty on 21 federal counts.

Dominguez's wife of 28 years and two adult children cried loudly in the courtroom.

His attorney, J. Stephen Salter, said they would appeal the convictions, most of which carry a maximum penalty of 10 years each in prison.

Dominguez is out on bond until his sentencing hearing July 9.

The same jury found Roberto Yosvany, charged with operating the boat, not guilty of the conspiracy and smuggling charges.

'I'm shocked,' said Steven Schneider, who in 1993 founded California-based Total Sports International with Dominguez and former Major League player Ron Cey.

Schneider said he could not understand how the jury could take the testimony of the prosecution's star witness, convicted drug trafficker Ysbel Medina, and find Yosvany not guilty, yet convict Dominguez.

Medina's testimony was the main evidence in the government's case against Yosvany. Medina took a plea deal for a lesser sentence in exchange for testifying.

GOVERNMENT'S CASE

The government had a strong paper trail against Dominguez: The most damaging was $225,000 in wire payments paid to Medina from the bank account of Chicago Cubs catcher Henry Blanco, a major client of Dominguez. Blanco testified that he did not know about the transactions until being called by a grand jury months later.

Dominguez testified that he paid the money only because he received a threatening phone call in July 2004 from Medina, who said he'd harm Dominguez's family if he did not pay the smuggling debt of another of his clients, Yuniesky Betancourt, now a shortstop for the Seattle Mariners.

'I believed my family was under threat -- those kids are my life,' Dominguez said Thursday while testifying in his own defense. ``I don't care what you say, I will pay whatever it takes to get that piece of cockroach away from me.'

But in closing arguments, assistant U.S. Attorney Marcus Christian asked the jury to consider two questions:

If Dominguez felt so threatened by Medina, why did he invite Medina to his California home for an August 2004 birthday party for Blanco?

And why didn't Dominguez go to the local police or FBI?

The defense admitted Dominguez didn't go to the police and said he just wanted the nightmare over. As to the birthday party, Dominguez said there were many guests attending.

Prosecutors had charged Dominguez with funding two trips in go-fast boats across the Florida Straits -- the first was interdicted in July 2004, but the second successfully reached Big Pine Key the following month.

Prosecutors also said Dominguez illegally transported the five players from Florida to California by van, and then illegally harbored them at an apartment complex, paying for their food, clothing, rent and training.

Prosecutors said the motive for not taking the ballplayers immediately to immigration -- he did so 89 days after they arrived -- was so they could ultimately go to a third country where they could seek free agency.

In baseball, free agents generally make more money because they can negotiate with all 30 Major League teams.

But if they had residency status in the United States earlier, they would have had to enter the amateur draft.

DOMINGUEZ'S DEFENSE

Dominguez's defense team argued that once the players were on U.S. soil, they no longer were illegal aliens under the U.S. wet-foot/dry-foot policy.

The defense also presented evidence that Dominguez did not hide the players, who practiced at a junior college, were interviewed by a production company owned by Quincy Jones' son and had tryouts with 30 scouts from 23 Major League teams in attendance.

Only two of the five players involved in the indictment are still active: Osbek Castillo, a pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks' AA minor-league affiliate in Alabama; and Francisely Bueno, a pitcher with the Atlanta Braves' AA team in Mississippi.

Yoankis Turino played briefly for a minor-league team in Nebraska but is now working for a manufacturing company in California. Osmany Masso and Allen Guevara never played professionally in the United States. Both live in Miami.

Schneider, Dominguez's partner in the sports agency, said they spent between $200,000 and $250,000 on the players brought out of Cuba -- the five smuggled in August 2004 and Betancourt, who dumped them as his agents just before he signed with the Mariners. In return, the agents never received a dime, Schneider said.

The seven-day trial was unusual in that several sports figures flew to Key West in the middle of the season to testify: Blanco, Philadelphia Phillies General Manager Pat Gillick and former major league pitcher Ariel Pietro.

Medina, the prosecution's star witness, testified last week in blue prison garb: ``This ballplayer business was a failure for all of us.'



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