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This case has poker world watching

At the 2006 World Series of Poker, Full Tilt Poker Chief Executive Officer Raymond Bitar enjoyed the trappings of a gaming industry titan.

Inside the Rio’s convention area, Full Tilt and other Internet poker giants commanded spacious luxury suites that were a mix between a cocktail party, corporate meeting room, and players’ lounge.

Full Tilt’s familiar red-and-black logo dominated the landscape. The suite contained plush sofas, an open bar, free snacks and scantily clad waitresses. Full Tilt’s sponsored team of professional poker players – led by Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson – relaxed in the lounge during breaks between tournament events and away from legions of fans.

Full Tilt also had a large presence inside the Rio’s Gaming Life Expo, a trade show operated during the World Series of Poker that highlighted online gaming companies.

Bitar often held court with the poker media in the Full Tilt lounge during that summer and was king of his universe.

Today, Bitar is home in Glendora, Calif., under house arrest and monitored by federal agents.

Last week in New York, he was released from federal custody after posting a $2.5 million bond and agreeing to put up $2 million in property, ensuring his return to the U.S. Courthouse in Manhattan.

Bitar, 40, is facing life in prison after the U.S. Department of Justice amended its 15-month-old nine-count indictment against the gaming executive. Prosecutors said Full Tilt was an elaborate Internet Ponzi scheme that stole more than $350 million from gamblers in the United States and worldwide.

"Bitar bluffed his player-customers and fixed the game against them," Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement. "Raymond Bitar will now be held criminally responsible for the alleged multimillion(-dollar) fraud he perpetrated on his U.S. customers."

In a surprise move, Bitar returned to the U.S. on July 2 from a self-imposed exile in Ireland. He voluntarily surrendered to authorities after disembarking from a plane at Kennedy Airport.

Following his arrest, Bitar proclaimed his innocence and vowed to fight the charges. He made a halfhearted attempt to apologize to Full Tilt’s former customers. He said he wanted to return their long overdue funds.

"I know a lot of people are angry with me," Bitar said.

Which brings us back to Lederer and Ferguson. The poker icons, who were business partners in Full Tilt, are probably wondering what Bitar might be telling federal prosecutors.

Lederer and Ferguson have been personae non grata in the poker community over the last year-and-a-half following the April 15, 2011, Justice Department crackdown on Internet poker, now known as Black Friday.

Bitar and Full Tilt executive Nelson Burtnick were among the 11 individuals with three online poker websites ensnared in the original indictment that carried charges of money laundering, bank fraud and operating an illegal gambling business.

The government also filed a civil lawsuit seeking $3 billion in money- laundering penalties from Full Tilt, PokerStars and Absolute Poker.

Last September, federal prosecutors added Lederer and Ferguson to the civil action against Full Tilt. The Justice Department alleged that Bitar, Lederer and Ferguson – members of Full Tilt’s board – funneled money from players’ accounts into their own pockets.

When the new indictment against Bitar was unsealed, prosecutors said Full Tilt commingled player funds with corporate money and distributed $430 million to investors and company insiders. Bitar, it was alleged, paid himself $40 million. Previously, the government alleged Lederer collected $42 million while Ferguson was paid $87.5 million and was "owed" another $25 million.

Lederer and Ferguson, who each won millions on the poker circuit, helped found Full Tilt. Ferguson, who won the 2000 World Series of Poker Main Event, has a doctorate in computer science and developed Full Tilt’s software. Both enticed professional poker players – including Andy Bloch, Eric Seidel, Mike Matusow, Jennifer Harman and Phil Ivey – to become Full Tilt-sponsored players.

Two weeks before Black Friday, Full Tilt struck a partnership with Ferttita Interactive – co-owned by Station Casinos’ founding family – to potentially operate an American-based Internet poker site. Lederer called me on background to discuss Full Tilt’s involvement. The indictments dissolved the deal.

Full Tilt is out of business. Regulators in the British Channel Islands Crown Dependency of Alderney, where Full Tilt is headquartered, revoked its gaming license last summer.

Facing a combined 145 years in federal prison if convicted, Bitar might be willing to cut a deal, an aspect that has to worry Lederer and Ferguson.

Six of the 11 individuals charged on Black Friday have negotiated plea bargains in the past 12 months, admitting guilt to various charges. Five of the defendants await sentencing.

Bitar is the biggest name, so far, to be arrested.

In August 2006, one of Full Tilt’s best-known players, Alan Cunningham, finished fourth in the World Series of Poker’s Main Event, which drew a record 8,773 players. Many of the entries came through winning Internet poker-sponsored tournaments, including events on Full Tilt.

Two months later, President George W. Bush signed into law the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which made it illegal for financial institutions to process funds related to online gambling. Violations of the act were the basis of the Black Friday indictments.

The outcome of Bitar’s case could have a lasting impact on poker.

Howard Stutz’s Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. He blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/stutz. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

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