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Nevada lawmakers drop contributions from poker site

WASHINGTON — Charities stand to benefit from thousands of dollars in donations from Nevada members of Congress as they shed campaign contributions from an online poker outfit that has been accused of bilking customers.

Lawmakers said they plan to dispose of funds they were given by board members of FullTilt Poker. Several said they also will give up donations from a political action committee funded in part by the company’s board.

This week, the Justice Department named four board members — including professional poker players Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson — among defendants in a civil lawsuit charging FullTilt defrauded players. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called it "a global Ponzi scheme."

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., received $16,800 from the defendants and $8,332 from the Poker Players Alliance PAC since 2008, according to federal records.

FullTilt board members also donated $44,000 to Reid-affiliated committees whose proceeds were shared with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Nevada Democratic Party, according to federal records.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, was an early skeptic of Internet gambling but has become supportive of a federal role to regulate online poker. He is negotiating a bill that would allow states to license and police the online game.

"The alleged illegal actions by FullTilt Poker are disturbing and underscore the need for comprehensive online poker legislation that creates a strict regulatory environment to protect U.S. consumers, prevent underage gambling and respect the decisions of states that don’t allow gambling," Reid said.

Reid will shed the $16,800 received by his campaign fund, including $4,800 from Lederer’s wife, Susan. Spokesman Zac Petkanas said Reid has not yet determined how the funds will be distributed.

Reid is keeping the PAC money. "It receives contributions from hundreds of online poker enthusiasts, many of whom were allegedly defrauded themselves by FullTilt Poker," Petkanas said. "It would not be appropriate to cast these contributions in the same light as those associated with FullTilt Poker."

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., received $9,063 since 2008, divided between the poker PAC and the FullTilt board, according to federal records.

"We plan to donate those contributions to charity," spokesman Stewart Bybee said. Heller has not identified which organization will receive the money.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., plans to dispose of $40,084 in contributions divided among FullTilt board members, the poker PAC and Susan Lederer, a spokeswoman said. Berkley has not specified what will be done with the money.

"These allegations are extremely troubling and, if true, threaten to unfairly cast a shadow over the entire online poker community thanks to the alleged actions of a few individuals," Berkley said in a statement Wednesday night.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., received $1,500 from the Poker Players Alliance PAC, according to the FEC. A spokesman said Heck plans to donate that amount to Catholic Charities.

There were no records indicating whether new Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., received donations from the company or the PAC.

Executives of FullTilt and the Poker Players Alliance PAC spent more than $500,000 in federal political contributions since supportive lawmakers began efforts four years ago to legalize online gambling, according to federal records.

Besides Ferguson and Lederer, FullTilt political donors who were named as defendants to the civil case this week were Ray Bitar and Rafael Furst.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Peter Urban at purban@stephensmedia.com or at 202-783-1760.

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