Tuesday July 3, 2012 : ONLINE POKER MOGUL'S ARREST CONTINUES TO MAKE HEADLINES (Update)
Bitar's surrender overshadows even the Big One for One Drop competition
Yesterday's dramatic surrender of Full Tilt Poker chief Ray Bitar and his arrest on arrival at Kennedy airport on allegations of running a Ponzi scheme knocked even the million dollar buy-in Big One for One Drop tourney off the front pages of most US media early Tuesday morning.
40-year-old Bitar said in a statement issued by his legal representatives that he had voluntarily travelled from his headquarters in Ireland to surrender to the US authorities, commenting:
"I know that a lot of people are very angry at me. I understand why. Full Tilt should never have gotten into a position where it could not repay player funds."
Associated Press reports indicated that after his arrest Bitar pleaded not guilty in a New York courtroom. He was ordered held until he can meet the conditions of a $2.5 million bond, an amount set by U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra Freeman over the objections of a prosecutor who asked that he be held without bail as a flight risk.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Arlo Devlin-Brown said Bitar falsely claimed to Internet poker customers that their money would be safe and would not be mixed with company funds. More than $430 million had been paid to Bitar and other owners while only $60 million to $70 million remained in company accounts to reimburse players who thought they had accounts totalling $350 million, half of it belonging to Americans, he claimed.
Devlin-Brown accused Bitar of paying himself at least $40 million, most of which remains abroad. He said charges filed against Bitar on Black Friday would have resulted in only a few years in prison.
However, on the new indictment, the charges could result in a sentence that would be "measured in decades."
Devlin-Brown said Bitar continued accepting money from new customers outside the United States even after Black Friday.
"By then this company was little more than a Ponzi scheme, and his presence was needed to keep it from unravelling," he said.
Bitar’s lawyers said he had "worked hard" for the last 15 months to find solutions to get players repaid.
"Returning today is part of that process," he said in a statement. "I believe we are near the end of a very long road, and I will continue to do whatever is required to get the players repaid, and I hope that it will happen soon."
Devlin-Brown rejected claims Bitar was working for the greater good of the customers, saying it "strains all credibility." He said Bitar was "simply keeping a Ponzi scheme from being detected."
The prosecutor said the U.S. had been working with Irish authorities and had been prepared to extradite Bitar if he did not return to the United States voluntarily.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement that the indictment shows "how Bitar bluffed his player-customers and fixed the game against them as part of an international Ponzi scheme that left players empty-handed."
In the new supervening indictment, Nelson Burtnick, head of payment processing, is named with Bitar. It claims that they defrauded customers to conceal the firm’s cash-poor condition after charges were filed last year.
The revised indictment, unsealed Monday in a federal court in New York, alleges that both men used player funds to finance Full Tilt Poker’s operations and pay its owners. Full Tilt Poker developed a shortfall between the amount of cash in its bank accounts and the money it owed players.
Bloomberg news reports that prosecutors said the two accuseds failed to hold player cash in “segregated” accounts and that they then “concocted a method to temporarily disguise the company’s problems.”
Although Full Tilt Poker agreed with the U.S. Justice Department to immediately return all money owed to U.S. players, neither the company nor Bitar and Burtnick repaid customers as the company claimed to have done on its website, prosecutors said.
“In truth and in fact, however, Full Tilt Poker could not return player money because, as Bitar knew, the player money had been spent by the company and distributed to its owners,” prosecutors said in the new indictment.
The company’s internal financial statements reported that as of March 31, 2011, revealed that it owed $390 million to players around the world, yet had less than $60 million in its bank accounts,’’ prosecutors alleged.
“Bitar and Full Tilt Poker persisted in soliciting U.S. gamblers long after such conduct was outlawed,” said Janice Fedarcyk, the head of the FBI’s New York office.
“Bitar has already been charged with defrauding banks to conceal the illegal gambling. Now he stands accused of defrauding Full Tilt’s customers by concealing its cash-poor condition and paying off early creditors with deposits from later customers. The online casino became an Internet Ponzi scheme.”
Judge Debra Freeman agreed to release Bitar on $2.5 million personal recognizance bond secured by $1 million in cash or property and the signatures of five financially responsible people. Bitar will also be required to confine his travel to the Southern and Eastern District of New York and the Central District of California, and must surrender his passport.
The case is U.S. v. Bitar, 10-cr-336, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
Meanwhile, speculation was rife around the industry that the Bitar surrender is part of an overall process designed to progress the acquisition of Full Tilt by Pokerstars, thereby assuring unpaid players that they will – at last – be paid what they are owed. There has been no confirmation of these speculative rumours other than Bitar’s departing email to Irish employees