Shortly before Thanksgiving, Major League Baseball announced that it would strip the Atlanta Braves of 13 prospects, including coveted Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan, after an investigation by the league determined that the franchise had circumvented international signing rules. The violation of those rules, which were revamped last year following the passage of a new collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players’ union, resulted in the lost prospects and excommunication of two former top Braves executives.
John Coppolella, who began his baseball career as an intern for the New York Yankees before eventually becoming general manager of the Braves in 2015, was banned for life from the game as a result of the league’s investigation. Gordon Blakeley, a former special assistant to Coppolella, both of whom resigned from the Braves in early October, was given a one-year ban by MLB.
A source briefed on that matter told The American Lawyer (a Daily Report affiliate) that the Braves were represented by team general counsel Greg Heller, as well as Baker & Hostetler litigation partners Ronald Gaither Jr. and Edmund “Ned” Searby. Gaither, a longtime outside lawyer for the Braves, joined Baker & Hostetler’s Atlanta office last year from Schiff Hardin, while Searby came aboard in 2012 from McDonald Hopkins in Cleveland.
Baker & Hostetler has close ties to MLB. In 2016, the league hired former firm lobbyists Joshua Alkin and Lucy Calautti to run its own in-house government affairs unit following the death of Baker & Hostetler partner and longtime league advocate William Schweitzer the year before.
The resignations of Coppolella and Blakeley and their subsequent bans by MLB occurred as a result of a scheme the duo allegedly oversaw during the past two years that involved the bundling of illicit payments through third parties known as buscónes to give the Braves an advantage in signing young players, predominantly from Latin America, according to an early October report by Yahoo Sports.
Coppolella and Blakeley, both of whom could pursue civil cases against the Braves, have retained Wigdor senior associate Renan Varghese in New York and Hawkins Parnell Thackston & Young labor and employment practice leader Ronald Polly Jr. in Atlanta, respectively, said a source familiar with the matter. (Varghese and Wigdor name partner Douglas Wigdor—in the news this year for his myriad suits against Fox News—are also representing former New York Knicks star Charles Oakley in his suit filed in September against the Madison Square Garden Co., advised by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher litigation co-chair Randy Mastro, over Oakley’s ejection from the storied sports arena in February.)
The severity of the punishment meted out by MLB—Coppolella is one of only a few individuals to be banned for life from baseball—was taken as a sign of the commitment by MLB commissioner and former Morgan, Lewis & Bockius partner Robert Manfred Jr. to crack down on rules violations in the market for international players.
In recent years, MLB has sought to tighten such rules in order to ensure the safety of young players leaving poor countries for the prospective riches of U.S. baseball, a process that often sees unscrupulous smugglers or buscónes solicit under-the-table payments to direct playing prospects to certain teams.
In early November, sports agent Bartolo Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada received prison sentences from a federal district court in Miami after being convicted on conspiracy and alien-smuggling charges related to their involvement in an operation that smuggled Cuban baseball players into the U.S. One of those players was Chicago White Sox star Jose Abreu, who testified at trial earlier this year that he ate part of a fake passport while flying into the country using the forged document.
MLB chief legal officer Daniel Halem worked with deputy general counsel and vice president of investigations Bryan Seeley—hired by the league in 2014—and in-house investigations counsel Moira Weinberg on the Braves matter.
A version of this article first appeared on the website of The American Lawyer.)