According to SI.com, the FBI/MLB investigation into Jim Bowden and Jose Rijo is centered on the 2006 signing of then 16-year old Dominican shortstop Esmailyn "Smiley" Gonzalez, and the attending $1.4M signing bonus. Another raft of unnamed sources suggest that Bowden and/or Rijo and others may have skimmed some of the signing bonus money to line their own pockets.
Former Nats WaPo beat writer Barry Svrluga did a must-read series on baseball in the Dominican Republic in late 2006. He described a system where major league teams are held captive by sometimes unscrupulous coach/agents known as buscones. The buscones are the conduit through which talented young Dominican ballplayers reach the minor leagues. In return they collect up to 50% of the players' signing bonuses and kickbacks to coaches, agents and academy directors, if not commonplace, are hardly shocking. The Gonzalez signing was Washington's first major foray into this marketplace and a highly publicized feather in the cap of the front office.
Even given the widely acknowledged quasi-corruption in the Dominican play acquisition system, the theory outlined in the SI piece suffers from at least one serious problem: Esmailyn Gonzalez and his parents say that he received every dime he was owed under the contract. From the article:
[Gonzalez] says he received the entire sum he signed for. He also tells SI.com that he paid his buscon, Basilio Vizcaino, and his agent, Rob Plummer, their due percentages and that he has not been cheated out of any money. "Gracias a Dios [Thanks be to God], that didn't happen to me. The people I trusted didn't cheat me."[...] Gonzalez's mother, Ana Mercedes Marte, says she received the full amount of the bonus in Dominican pesos and remembers people stopping by their house to collect their money for their role in coaching her son.
There are certainly ways to spin the above quotes. The Gonzalez family is relatively poor and uneducated. Would they even notice the absence of part of the bonus money, considering the acknowledged payouts and the conversion from US dollars to Dominican pesos? Perhaps not. Nevertheless, when the subject of the article flatly contradicts the premise of the article, that's hardly building from a rock-solid journalistic or legal foundation.
I have a few other quibbles with the piece. The author suggests that the Nats overpaid for Smiley, and justified that excess by overhyping him as a 5-tool player. In support the article quotes an anonymous executive from another club, who says Gonzalez "doesn't run all that well, [and] has an average arm." A player evaluation dispute? Stop the presses! And did the Nats overpay? Sure they did, and they all but said so at the time. The Gonzalez signing was about sending a message to the buscones as much as it was about acquiring the next great Dominican shortstop. A little context and historical perspective would go a long way.
For example: The overpaid, overhyped Esmailyn Gonzalez had a league average OPS in 33 games with the Gulf Coast League Nationals as a 17 year old last season. In 15 GCL games this season he's hitting 397/462/552, out OPSing the league by more than 300 points. And he's 8-11 in stolen bases on his young career.
Finally, the article recounts a meeting at "the exclusive Capital Grille steakhouse in Washington, D.C.". I've been to the Capital Grille and if I've been there, it ain't terribly exclusive.
This is not a defense of Jim Bowden or Jose Rijo. If they, or anyone else, skimmed so much as a dollar of this kid's money, they deserve whatever terrible deserts they get. This is a critique of sloppy journalism, which is even less forgivable when the issues involved are hardly matters of life and death. Anonymous sources and insufficient context make for bad reporting. Bad reporting forces me into the position of having to defend Jim Bowden. And I hate defending Jim Bowden.