Following his voluntary surrender to federal authorities, Ray Bitar was arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra Freeman and pleaded not guilty to a slew of charges that were upgraded to include additional wire fraud and money laundering counts that were not present in the original Black Friday indictment.
The judge set a $2.5 million personal recognizance bond for the Full Tilt CEO, which requires the posting of $1 million in cash or property, as well as the signatures of five people deemed to be financially responsible. It is quite certain that fellow Full Tilt board members Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson do not meet that criteria.
Bitar was forced to surrender his passport, and upon the posting of bail--which is expected to occur within 48 hours--his travels have been limited by the judge to the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York and the Central District of California. Bitar has a residence in the Golden State and relatives living nearby.
Bitar had been living in Ireland since the Black Friday allegations 15 months ago. Although he had alerted federal authorities through his attorney of his desire to enter the U.S. and surrender, federal agents wasted no time in apprehending Bitar upon his arrival on American soil. The feds didn't even wait for Bitar to exit the plane, going on board to make the arrest. Rumors have been circulating that authorities in Ireland and the U.S. were working on extradition paperwork to forcibly return the Full Tilt founder to the U.S. had he not chosen to surrender on his own.
Prosecutors requested that Judge Freeman detain Bitar without bail due to his failure to face up to the charges for well over one year and the possibility that he would have a change of heart regarding his surrender and flee. “Mr. Bitar was a U.S. citizen who traveled back and forth to the U.S. from Ireland, but knowing he was indicted he decided not to come back,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Arlo Devlin-Brown argued.
Attorneys for Bitar countered that their client was never evading prosecution, but was continuing functions as the company's chief executive officer in Ireland and working around the clock to find ways to reimburse players, as this had always been his main priority. Judge Freeman wasn't swayed by the prosecution and sided with Bitar's lawyers in applying various conditions to the hefty bond, ensuring Bitar remains stateside.
The additional charges Bitar faces in the superseding indictment relate to his actions following the Black Friday allegations. Prosecutors allege that Bitar and payment processor Nelson Burtnick lied to Full Tilt players about the security and segregation of funds, encouraging players outside of the U.S. to continue making deposits in order to finance Full Tilt's operating expenses, as well as to pay players wishing to make withdrawals. This resulted in a "global Ponzi scheme," said Preet Bharara, the lead prosecutor in the case.
Bitar's surrender has the industry buzzing that the purchase of Full Tilt by PokerStars is imminent and that the millions of dollars in player funds that have been frozen on Full Tilt for more than a year may soon be reimbursed. Bitar alluded to such in making a statement following his arraignment in New York.
“Today, I returned voluntarily to the U.S. from Full Tilt’s headquarters in Ireland to face the charges against me,” Bitar's statement said. “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 will continue to do whatever is required to get the players repaid and I hope that it will happen soon.”
While the statement falls short of apologizing and admitting total guilt, it does concede the mismanagement of player funds. Bitar did attempt to apologize to the poker community in March after 11 months of silence following Black Friday. However, his apology was met by ridicule and criticism by many players who felt that it was a matter of too little, too late.
The Full Tilt saga continues, with many players now being more hopeful than ever that PokerStars will save the day by acquiring Full Tilt, paying back players, and re-launching the once-popular Full Tilt site. Bitar stated in an email to Full Tilt employees prior to his surrender that he has "made arrangements for Poker Stars to guarantee all July salaries. You should therefore have no concern about coming to work during this period. After that, we expect that your employment contracts will be assumed by the buyer of the company’s assets.”
If true, good news indeed for the many players waiting for reimbursement.