On April 15, 2011, a day that would later become known as Black Friday in the online poker community, the Department of Justice shuttered two major online poker giants, PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, accusing the company founders of fraud, money laundering, and operating a Ponzi scheme.
Yesterday, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced that PokerStars has agreed to pony up over $547 million to the U.S. and to reimburse about $184 million owed by Full Tilt to foreign players. Under the unique arrangement, PokerStars acquired Full Tilt--along with the company's debt.
"We are pleased to announce these settlements by Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars, which allow us to quickly get significant compensation into the victim players' hands," Bharara said in a statement. "Today's settlements demonstrate that if you engage in conduct that violates the laws of the United States, as we alleged in this case, then even if you are doing so from across the ocean, you will have to answer for that conduct and turn over your ill-gotten gains."
Online poker is big business--but one that that United States prohibits. In 2006, the government enacted the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which made any type of online gambling within the United States illegal.
In response, many online gambling sites simply moved offshore--some, including PokerStars, to the Isle of Man in the British Isles, where online gambling is legal and taxes are less of a consideration.
But moving abroad was not a complete panacea for the companies' legal woes. The poker companies still needed to receive funds from American players, but the 2006 law made it too risky for banks and U.S. credit card issuers to knowingly process transactions from Americans. So in order for the poker companies to receive money from players, they devised elaborate--and often illegal--schemes to reroute payments. The Department of Justice's statement explains:
For example, the Poker Companies arranged for the money received from U.S. gamblers to be disguised as payments to hundreds of non-existent online merchants purporting to sell merchandise such as jewelry and golf balls. Of the billions of dollars in payment transactions that the Poker Companies deceived U.S. banks into processing, approximately one-third or more of the funds went directly to the Poker Companies as revenue through the "rake" charged to players on almost every poker hand played online.
To accomplish their fraud, the Poker Companies worked with an array of highly compensated "payment processors" who obtained accounts at U.S. banks for the Poker Companies. The payment processors lied to banks about the nature of the financial transactions they were processing, and covered up those lies, by, among other things, creating phony corporations and websites to disguise payments to the Poker Companies.
The settlement includes several layers. First, PokerStars will pay the government $225 million for Full Tilt's assets. Then, the company will fill a separate bank account with $184 million to pay back Full Tilt customers. Finally, PokerStars will pay the remaining $547 million to the government, who will dispense the money to players whose accounts were frozen over the next three years.
"We are delighted we have been able to put this matter behind us, and also secured our ability to operate in the United States of America whenever the regulations allow," Mark Scheinberg, chairman of the board of PokerStars, said in a statement.
The former CEO of Full Tilt, Raymond Bitar, was arrested in July 2012 at the JFK airport returning from his company's headquarters in Irleand. The government alleges Bitar operated Full Tilt as a Ponzi scheme, and is preparing to prosecute. After his arrest, Bitar posted $2.5 million bail, and is now awaiting trial in his home in Glendora, California.
"I believe that this deal will result in Full Tilt's customers being repaid," Bitar said in a statement yesterday. "I am extremely pleased and excited by this prospect. For the past 15 months, I have worked hard on possible solutions to get players repaid. It has been a very long road, with lots of bumps along the way, but I am glad we have gotten to the end. I only wish that we could have resolved the situation much sooner."