PokerStars, Justice Department Reach Settlement

by , Aug 1, 2012 | 9:34 am

Internet gaming giant PokerStars will forfeit $731 million to the U.S. government over the next three years to settle a criminal complaint with the Department of Justice, although the company admits no wrongdoing as alleged in the April 2011 “Black Friday” indictments.

Some of the settlement will be used to refund money owed to U.S. and foreign customers of the now defunct Full Tilt Poker, which was also named in the original indictments.

PokerStars, which refunded money it owed to American gamblers more than a year ago, will acquire the assets of Full Tilt and relaunch the gaming website in legal markets as a separate brand.

The settlement, announced separately Tuesday by Isle of Man-based PokerStars and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, puts to rest many issues surrounding “Black Friday,” in which federal prosecutors cracked down on Internet poker in the United States, stopping three of the largest companies from taking wagers from gamblers in the United States.

PokerStars continues to operate legally in Europe and other markets where online gaming is regulated.

Under terms of the settlement, PokerStars can apply to offer Internet poker to U.S. customers if state or federal governments legalize the activity.

“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,” PokerStars Chairman Mark Scheinberg said in a statement. “The way we have operated our business since the U.S. Department of Justice brought its claim has underlined our credentials as a responsible online poker operator.”

Nevada recently approved online poker within the state’s borders. More than three dozen casino operators and gaming equipment providers have since filed applications to participate in interactive gaming. PokerStars has not applied for a Nevada license.

U.S. market entry unsure

Despite the Justice Department OK, it’s still unclear whether any U.S. jurisdiction would license PokerStars.

Gaming Control Board Chairman Mark Lipparelli said Tuesday he wouldn’t comment in advance about any particular applicant or prospective applicant. In Nevada, applicants must prove their suitability to regulators.

“Prior acts of any applicant will be investigated on a case-by-case basis,” Lipparelli said. “In cases where I emphasized that ‘perfection cannot be the standard’ should not be misconstrued or carelessly selected to mean I do not believe many applicants will fail the high standards we expect. In fact, I would argue our system strongly dissuades those applicants from applying.”

PokerStars had an agreement with Wynn Resorts Ltd. to joint venture Internet gaming activities in the United States before “Black Friday.” The deal was terminated after the indictments.

Federal prosecutors indicted 11 individuals on April 15, 2011, and charged them with money laundering, bank fraud and illegally operating Internet gaming websites. Seven of the defendants were arrested, including former Full Tilt CEO Raymond Bitar, and six have pleaded guilty to various charges.

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

PokerStars founder Isai Scheinberg, who was also indicted, remains at large with charges pending. Under the settlement, Isai Scheinberg cannot hold a management or director position with the company once the Full Tilt acquisition is complete.

Civil lawsuits settled

Tuesday’s settlement, which was approved by a federal judge in New York, ends the legal proceedings with PokerStars and Full Tilt as corporate entities. However, criminal and civil proceedings are still moving forward against individual defendants.

The U.S. attorney’s office has reached a settlement agreement with Absolute Poker, and the matter is pending approval by a federal judge.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara the settlement with PokerStars and Full Tilt “allows us to quickly get significant compensation in the victim players’ hands.”

Bharara, who previously labeled Full Tilt Poker “an elaborate Internet Ponzi scheme” said Tuesday the 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.”

The $731 million will be divided up this way:

? Some $547 will go to the U.S. government; from that amount, an estimated $150 million will go to U.S. players who are owed money by Full Tilt.

? The remaining amount, $184 million, will go to foreign players owed money by Full Tilt from a separate account.

The repayment of American Full Tilt players will be administered by the Justice Department.

PokerStars plans to relaunch Full Tilt with a new management team.

Defendant surrenders

In July, Bitar surrendered to U.S. authorities after a 15-month exile in Ireland. He was released from federal custody and placed on house arrest in California after posting a $2.5 million bond and agreeing to put up $2 million in property.

Bitar, 40, faces life in prison after prosecutors amended the nine-count indictment, saying Full Tilt stole more than $350 million from gamblers in the United States and worldwide.

Last September, federal prosecutors added poker superstars Howard Lederer and Chris 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.

Bharara’s office said PokerStars is prohibited from employing Full Tilt insiders Bitar, Lederer, Ferguson and Nelson Burtnick, who is one of the four “Black Friday” defendants still at large.

“Acquiring certain assets of Full Tilt Poker strengthens PokerStars, brings welcome relief to Full Tilt Poker players who have been waiting over 12 months for repayment of their money, and benefits the entire poker community,” PokerStars Chairman Mark Scheinberg said.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.
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