Federal authorities and Major League Baseball are investigating Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden and special assistant Jose Rijo for their possible roles in a growing financial scandal involving the signing of players from the Dominican Republic, several sources familiar with the probe told ESPN.
Anyone implicated could face felony fraud charges, sources familiar with the investigation said.
Numerous MLB employees in the United States and the Dominican Republic are under suspicion in the probe, which allegedly involves the skimming of signing money allocated for Dominican prospects. Bowden, a 23-year veteran of MLB front offices and a general manager on and off since 1992, is the highest-ranking official known to be under investigation.
Reached in his office Friday evening, Bowden said he and other Nationals officials have spoken to both MLB's investigators and the FBI, as have officials from other clubs. But he said neither the FBI nor Major League Baseball has told him he is suspected of taking part in the scheme or in any way suspected of wrongdoing. Bowden said he was never asked about his own activities, and denied having any role in the scandal.
"No, I've certainly not gotten that approach from baseball or the FBI," he said. "There's obviously no truth to that. As far as the rest of this goes, they're probably better questions for the FBI or baseball."
Bowden would not say what he discussed with investigators.
"We completely support trying to clean up the problems that have taken place, but there's no truth to any involvement regarding anyone here," Bowden said.
Rijo, who is in the Dominican Republic, did not respond to a message left for him through the club.
Bowden, in an interview with the Associated Press during the Nationals' game Friday night against the Houston Astros, reiterated: "At no time when I met with the FBI investigators were questions revolving around myself or Jose Rijo."
Asked whether he had any knowledge of any improprieties within the Nationals organization, Bowden said: "Absolutely not."
The investigation could be particularly embarrassing for Rijo, who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. Rijo, a former All-Star pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds who was the MVP of the 1990 World Series, is also the son-in-law of Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal, who once served as the Dominican Minster of Sport.
MLB sources said FBI and baseball investigators have been speaking to numerous officials; however, they said Bowden and Rijo were among those specifically under investigation for their suspected involvement.
One source, an MLB official speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the investigation was "in its infancy" and involved allegations about several teams and their employees. It was unclear whether Bowden and Rijo are suspected of receiving money or whether they are believed to have played some other role in the scheme.
The investigation into Bowden and others stems from a tip MLB received several months ago alleging that then-White Sox senior personnel director Dave Wilder and two of his scouts were skimming bonus money paid to Dominican signees, according to the MLB source. Wilder was stopped while trying to re-enter the United States with roughly $40,000 in cash after a trip to the Dominican Republic, a source told ESPN, sparking a broader inquiry. Wilder could not be reached for comment.
In mid-May, Wilder and scouts Victor Mateo and Domingo Toribio were fired by the White Sox, who revealed that federal authorities also were looking into the matter.
Bowden, 46, was the youngest GM in the game's history when the Reds hired him in 1992 at 31. He was fired by the Reds during the 2003 season and worked for ESPN before being hired by the Nationals as their GM in November 2004. Bowden and Rijo worked together in the Reds organization for six seasons.
The Chicago Tribune previously reported MLB and federal investigators were examining whether Wilder and the scouts had taken cuts off the top of bonuses paid to Dominican players. The Los Angeles Times reported recently that federal agents were interviewing representatives from every Major League team as part of its probe.
After MLB received its tip in March, its investigations department launched a wide-ranging examination of signing practices in the Dominican -- a probe that has led to allegations involving employees of several clubs, including Bowden and other Nationals employees, sources said.
MLB also added four Latin American investigators to its staff, each with a background in drug enforcement. At least two of those new hires have been working in the Dominican regularly during the past three months, visiting every club's Dominican camp within the past month.
The MLB investigations unit is "looking at everything, A to Z, speaking to players, scouts, people that run the academies," the source said. The unit also is delving into the issue of access to, and distribution of, steroids to ballplayers in the Dominican.
The case of Wilder and the ensuing probe is distinguished from previous improprieties in the Dominican because it involves MLB team employees, rather than simply Dominican street agents, known as "buscones," or "finders," who routinely have taken exorbitant shares of bonuses from their players.
Mark Fainaru-Wada and T.J. Quinn are reporters for ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Fainaru-Wada can be reached at email@example.com. Quinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.