Full Tilt Poker CEO Pledges to Return Player Money, Delaware Is First to OK Online Casinos

Online poker players still await refunds as Delaware tests gambling waters.

July 3, 2012— -- Full Tilt Poker CEO Raymond Bitar says he will do "whatever is required" to return millions of dollars to online poker players who lost access to their cash after the site was closed down by the government.

Bitar, 40, was arrested on Monday at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, according to Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Bitar was charged last year with gambling, bank fraud and money laundering in connection with the operation of Full Tilt Poker.

Bitar is charged with promising players that their funds would be protected in "segregated" accounts when the company used the money to pay for Full Tilt operations and to pay Bitar and other owners over $430 million, according to Bharara. Full Tilt Poker was unable to pay the about $350 million it owed to players in the U.S. and around the world.

On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra Freedman agreed to release Bitar on $2.5 million bond secured by $1 million in cash or property and the signatures of five financially responsible people, Business Week reported.

On Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Attorneys Office said Bitar remains detained because has not yet satisfied his bail conditions.

In an indictment unsealed in Manhattan federal court on Monday, Bitar and Full Tilt Poker were charged with violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, enacted by Congress in late 2006, which made it a crime to "knowingly accept" most forms of payment "in connection with the participation of another person in unlawful Internet gambling."

But the battle to keep Americans from gambling online seems to be a losing one for the feds.

Last week Delaware Democratic Gov. Jack Markell signed into law the Delaware Gaming Competitiveness Act of 2012, which will allow the state's three casinos to offer casino games online to those within state borders. The bill passed the state Senate 14-6 on Wednesday.

"We're talking about a couple thousand jobs," Markell told USA Today. "The competitive landscape for this industry has changed dramatically."

Delaware will be the first state to allow full-service casino gambling online as it faces stiff competition from nearby Pennsylvania and Maryland. By 2013, Delaware residents and visitors will be able to play roulette, blackjack and other casino games online and most likely on their smartphones, bound within state borders by geolocation services.

The online gambling space has been void of competition since April 15, 2011, when the three largest online poker companies operating in the U.S. were shut down by the Department of Justice, cutting off a source of income for online professional gamblers across the country.

In a statement, Bitar said he "voluntarily" returned to the U.S. from Full Tilt's headquarters in Ireland to face the charges against him:

"I know that a lot of people are very angry at me. I understand why. Full Tilt should never have gotten into a position where it could not repay player funds. For the last 15 months, I have worked hard on possible solutions to get the players repaid. Returning today is part of that process. 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. Thank you."

Full Tilt Poker, a company founded by professional poker players in the U.S. in 2004, offered Internet gambling to U.S. residents, and took in an estimated $1 billion from U.S. residents through April 15, 2011, according to the indictment.

The U.S. Attorney's office said, "Because U.S. banks were largely unwilling to process payments for illegal Internet gambling," Bitar and co-defendant, Nelson Burtnick, the head of Full Tilt Poker's payment processing department, "relied on fraudulent means designed to trick U.S. banks by disguising payments to Full Tilt Poker as payments unrelated to Internet gambling."

John Bauhman, an attorney for Bitar and a partner at Paul, Weiss, said he and his client "had previously informed the United States Attorney's Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation that Ray and I would be arriving at JFK this morning on a flight from Europe, and Ray's surrender took place at the airport in my presence and without incident."