- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | The Washington Nationals have decided to fire Jose Rijo, the special assistant to general manager Jim Bowden who has been at the center of a scandal involving a top Dominican prospect who created a false identity.

A club source confirmed Wednesday night that the Nationals will formally part ways with Rijo, who already had been sent home on a forced leave of absence last week after the scandal became public.

The organization also is expected to discontinue use of its training academy in the Dominican Republic, a facility run by Rijo, and look to start up operations elsewhere in the country. Assistant general manager Mike Rizzo was dispatched to the Dominican Republic earlier this week to scout out a location for a new facility.

Reached at his home in the Dominican, Rijo said he hasn’t been told by the club he has been fired. He said the first he heard about his status came earlier this evening from someone outside the organization.

“No one has called me to tell me what is going on,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything from the team. … All I heard is rumor.”

The Nationals have made no announcement regarding his job status, and team president Stan Kasten didn’t respond to messages Wednesday night.

Rijo, who has been one of Bowden’s chief lieutenants since 2005, came under heightened scrutiny last week when the Nationals revealed that a prospect who was going by the name Esmailyn Gonzalez lied about his name and age. That player was given a $1.4 million signing bonus by Washington in 2006 when he claimed to be 16, but his real name is Carlos David Alvarez Lugo, and he was 20 at the time of the signing.

Kasten called the incident a “deliberate, premeditated fraud” and said there would be repercussions for anyone who was involved in the cover-up. He wouldn’t deny speculation that there were any team employees in on the fraud.

Rijo was the member of the organization who first brought the player’s existence to the Nationals’ attention. Working with the player’s street agent, a longtime friend named Basilio Vizcaino, Rijo helped broker a deal with Washington that resulted in the franchise paying out the largest signing bonus in club history for an international player.

Rijo, 43, has maintained his innocence all along, insisting he was fooled by the player’s false identity just as much as team executives and Major League Baseball officials were.

“Tell me, where did I do something wrong here?” he said. “I didn’t know about the age or the identity. Major League Baseball [investigators] didn’t know it either, and they were all trained by the American consulate. … They haven’t told me what I’ve done wrong.”

Rijo, along with Bowden, also has been among a group of MLB and team officials who have been investigated by federal authorities looking into allegations of club personnel skimming the signing bonuses given to top Latin American players. Bowden, who was interviewed by FBI officials last summer, said this week he is “innocent of any wrongdoing.”

Bowden’s own job security has come into question in recent days, though two club sources said Wednesday they did not expect a quick decision by Nationals ownership on the status of their GM.

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