Full Tilt Poker CEO Raymond Bitar arrested over alleged Ponzi scheme

Die Karten fuer eine Pokerpartie werden am Dienstag, 10. April 2007, in der Spielbank Wiesbaden ausgeteilt. Casinos und Online-Anbieter verzeichnen einen Ansturm auf ihre Pokertische, in Kneipen und Wohnzimmern treffen sich private Zockerrunden - aus dem einst verruchten Kartenspiel ist ein Massenphaenomen geworden. Suchtexperten verfolgen die Entwicklung jedoch mit Sorge. (AP Photo/Bernd Kammerer)--- --- Poker cards at the casino in Wiesbaden, Germany, Tuesday, April, 10, 2007. (AP Photo/Bernd Kammerer)
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(AP) The U.S. government raised the stakes Monday for an Internet poker company founder, boosting charges against him and saying he could face decades in prison for operating a Ponzi scheme that has cost poker players hundreds of millions of dollars.

Raymond Bitar, 40, was arrested as he arrived at Kennedy Airport. The founder and chief executive officer of Full Tilt Poker said in a statement issued by his lawyers that he voluntarily returned from Ireland.

"I know that a lot of people are very angry at me," said Bitar, of Glendora, Calif., in suburban Los Angeles. "I understand why. Full Tilt should never have gotten into a position where it could not repay player funds."

Bitar, who pleaded not guilty in a courtroom that included several family members and friends among spectators, was ordered held until he can meet the conditions of a $2.5 million bond, an amount set by U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra Freeman over the objections of a prosecutor who asked that he be held without bail as a flight risk.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Arlo Devlin-Brown said Bitar falsely claimed to Internet poker customers that their money would be safe and would not be mixed with company funds.

He said authorities had determined that more than $430 million had been paid to Bitar and other owners while only $60 million to $70 million remained in company accounts to reimburse players who thought they had accounts totaling $350 million, half of it belonging to Americans.

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Devlin-Brown accused Bitar of paying himself at least $40 million, most of which remains abroad. He said charges filed against Bitar on April 15, 2011, when the three largest online poker companies operating in the U.S. were shut down, would have resulted in only a few years in prison.

The new indictment, he said, could result in a sentence that would be "measured in decades."

The charges included conspiracy to violate gambling laws, operation of an illegal gambling business, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy. They carry a potential maximum prison sentence of 145 years upon conviction.

Devlin-Brown said Bitar continued accepting money from new customers outside the United States even after last year's charges were filed in Manhattan.

"By then this company was little more than a Ponzi scheme, and his presence was needed to keep it from unraveling," he said.

Bitar, in his statement, said he had "worked hard" for the last 15 months to find solutions to get players repaid.

"Returning today is part of that process," he said. "I believe we are near the end of a very long road, and I will continue to do whatever is required to get the players repaid, and I hope that it will happen soon."

Roberto Finzi, one of Bitar's lawyers, said his client had worked around the clock trying to pay back customers, including considering the sale of company assets.

"He was not running around Mallorca having fun," Finzi said, referencing the vacation-friendly island in the Mediterranean Sea.

Devlin-Brown rejected claims Bitar was working for the greater good of the customers, saying it "strains all credibility." He said Bitar was "simply keeping a Ponzi scheme from being detected."

The prosecutor said the U.S. had been working with Irish authorities and was prepared to extradite Bitar if he did not return voluntarily.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement that the indictment shows "how Bitar bluffed his player-customers and fixed the game against them as part of an international Ponzi scheme that left players empty-handed."

Janice K. Fedarcyk, head of the New York FBI office, agreed.

"The online casino became an Internet Ponzi scheme," she said.