Wednesday September 21, 2011 : Shock and dismay at extent of player prejudice as ‘Ponzi Scheme' allegations continue.
European players and industry people awoke this (Wednesday) morning to widespread mainstream media reports on the latest Full Tilt Poker bombshell, dropped by US enforcement authorities after the close of business in Europe.
The Justice Department additions to its civil claim against Full Tilt Poker claiming that the company was in effect a Ponzi scheme caught the attention of news media everywhere, with the word "ponzi" dominant in most headlines.
Particular attention was given to the Justice allegation that FTP had assured players that their account deposits were “segregated and held separately from our operating accounts,” when, it is claimed, the online poker company was actually draining away finances regularly for other purposes, including paying the company’s owners and board members tens of millions of dollars.
The new revelations claim that defendant Ray Bitar got $41 million and top poker player and alleged co-founder Howard Lederer got $42 million. Chris Ferguson was supposed to get $87.5 million, although he may have only received $25 million of that amount so far, federal prosecutors claimed. The rest was characterised as monies owed to him by the company.
And it is alleged that millions of the money that was distributed to these individuals was transferred by the board members and owners to accounts in Switzerland and other overseas locations.
Rafe Furst, who allegedly received $11.7 million, was added to the defendant list as well, and an accusation of money laundering was made against the defendants, with a request for penalties ranging from $12 million for Furst to $42 million for Lederer.
Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara's strong language in the amendment was widely quoted by the media, especially his comment that:
“Full Tilt was not a legitimate poker company, but a global Ponzi scheme. Full Tilt insiders lined their own pockets with funds picked from the pockets of their most loyal customers while blithely lying to both players and the public alike about the safety and security of the money deposited.”
The Justice amendment also makes confident claims regarding the ownership of FTP, saying: "At all times relevant to the Amended Complaint, Bitar, Lederer, Ferguson, and Furst were among the founders of Full Tilt Poker, as well as part-owners of Tiltware, LLC, a California Limited Liability Company that was the beneficial owner of all other Full Tilt Poker entities.
"In total, approximately 23 individuals owned shares in Full Tilt Poker. The FTP Insider Defendants specifically owned the following approximate percentages of Tiltware LLC: Bitar (7.8%), Lederer (8.6%), Ferguson (19.2%), and Furst (2.6%).
“The FTP Insider Defendants were also, at all relevant times, members of the Board of Directors of Tiltware LLC, and Ferguson was Chairman of the Board of Directors."
The sums of money detailed in the Justice Department amendment are staggering; the document asserts that as of March 21, 2011, FTP owed approximately $390 million to players around the world, with $150 million owed to U.S. players alone.
Yet FTP only had $60 million on deposit in its bank accounts, meaning well over $300 million is owed to players worldwide.
And it is alleged that between April 2007 and April 2011, Bitar, Lederer, Ferguson and Furst lined their own pockets with approximately $443,860,529.89 of players’ money.
Explaining the deepening crisis at FTP, the amendment outlines:
“The company faced increasing difficulty attempting to collect funds from players in the United States. Rather than disclose this fact, Full Tilt Poker simply credited players’ online gambling accounts with money that had never actually been collected from the players’ bank accounts. Full Tilt Poker allowed players to gamble with – and lose to other players – this phantom money that Full Tilt Poker never actually collected or possessed.”
The defendants will no doubt be concerned at the new developments, which could lead to personal law suits…and that might include property attachments..
The issue of whether FTP misled its players into believing that their deposits were safe at the Alderney-licensed site when deposits were in fact not ring-fenced as is the case with the Isle of Man-licensed rival Pokerstars, is attracting major attention.
The amendment comes at a time when the Alderney Gaming Control Commission has been widely criticised for continuing to hold its hearing into the suspension of FTP's licence in camera.
The hearing re-commenced on September 19 and the AGCC has not been communicative as it moves into its third day today (Wednesday). One can only imagine the impact of yesterday's Justice Department announcement must have had on the Alderney Commissioners.
The amendment is quite specific in giving examples of how players were led to believe their deposits were safe. Emails and posts made on poker forums were quoted, such as this one from FTPDoug on July 19 back in 2008:
“Players' funds at Full Tilt Poker are kept in several deposit accounts throughout the world, all of which are separate and distinct from our operating accounts. Funds are transferred from the players' deposit accounts to Full Tilt Poker's operating accounts only after we have earned them. This is not done each time we earn rake or even daily, but as our earnings accumulate, we make periodic transfers of those earnings from the deposit accounts to our operating accounts."
Among the early reactions to the new disclosures was one from John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, who said in a statement:
"This is a sad and disappointing day for American poker players. If true, these allegations detail a massive betrayal of player trust which will cause financial hardship for thousands, if not millions, of individual poker players, none of whom are accused of doing anything wrong.
“We call on the Department of Justice to certify that the proceeds of any settlement or seizure that may result from this action will first be dedicated to reimbursing players. We further call on Full Tilt Poker, its management, directors and owners to take all available steps to ensure the prompt payment of players as their first priority."
Full Tilt management has thus far not commented.