Yasiel Puig changing plea to not guilty of lying to investigators

NEW YORK -- Former major league outfielder Yasiel Puig has decided to withdraw his agreement to plead guilty to a charge of lying to federal agents investigating an illegal gambling operation.

Puig is changing his plea to not guilty because of "significant new evidence," according to a statement Wednesday from his attorneys in Los Angeles.

"I want to clear my name," Puig said in the statement. "I never should have agreed to plead guilty to a crime I did not commit."

In mid-November, the Justice Department announced Puig, 31, had agreed to plead guilty to one count of making false statements in an interview with federal investigators back in January.

That left him facing up to five years in federal prison -- though he was eligible for probation under the plea agreement, his lawyers said. He also agreed to pay a fine of at least $55,000.

The interview was conducted via Zoom and was related to gambling that occurred in 2019, his lawyers said.

"At the time of his January 2022 interview, Mr. Puig, who has a third-grade education, had untreated mental-health issues, and did not have his own interpreter or criminal legal counsel with him,″ Puig's attorney Keri Axel said in Wednesday's statement. "We have reviewed the evidence, including significant new information, and have serious concerns about the allegations made against Yasiel."

Axel is in discussions with the government about the new evidence, the statement said.

Puig, who has been playing in South Korea, was born in Cuba and spent seven seasons in the majors from 2013 to '19, the first six with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He batted .277 with 132 home runs and 415 RBIs, and earned an All-Star selection in 2014.

In an August plea agreement, Puig acknowledged that over a few months in 2019, he racked up more than $280,000 in losses while wagering on tennis, football and basketball games through a third party who worked for an illegal gambling operation run by Wayne Nix, a former minor league baseball player.

Puig placed at least 900 bets through Nix-controlled betting websites and through a man who worked for Nix, authorities said.

Puig did not interact with Nix, his lawyers said in the statement Wednesday.

In the plea agreement, Puig acknowledged lying in January to federal investigators who were looking into the business, denying he had placed bets through the operation.

Nix pleaded guilty in April to conspiracy to operate an illegal sports gambling business and filing a false tax return. Prosecutors said Nix's operation ran for two decades and included both current and former professional athletes as clients or employees.

Federal prosecutors also announced that another former MLB player, Erik Kristian Hiljus, 49, of Los Angeles, had agreed to plead guilty to two counts of subscribing to false tax returns. They said he was an agent for Nix's operation.

Hiljus could face up to six years in federal prison at sentencing.

Puig played for Cincinnati and Cleveland in 2019 before becoming a free agent. He then played in the Mexican League and last year signed a one-year, $1 million contact with South Korea's Kiwoom Heroes.

MLB would not investigate the issues related to gambling unless Puig attempts to sign with a big league organization.