NEW YORK (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.
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.