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Full Tilt Poker's ill founder pleads guilty but avoids prison

A federal judge spares Raymond Bitar from a prison sentence because he needs a heart transplant.

April 16, 2013|Bloomberg News

Full Tilt Poker founder Raymond Bitar, accused of using online player funds to finance his company in what prosecutors called a Ponzi scheme, pleaded guilty but was spared from serving time in prison because he needs a heart transplant.

U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska on Monday approved a plea agreement between Bitar, 41, and prosecutors, sentencing him to the seven days he served in jail last year, after saying a prison sentence would kill him. Bitar, who participated in a hearing in Manhattan federal court by video link from Los Angeles, near his home, pleaded guilty to two felonies that carry a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison.

Bitar, who is scheduled to enter a heart-transplant program May 6, wouldn't be eligible if he were sentenced to prison, Preska said. He would be unlikely to survive a term in prison, she said.

"I don't think any of us would trade places with him, no matter what," Preska said.

Bitar pleaded guilty to violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which regulates online gambling, and conspiring to commit bank fraud and wire fraud. In addition to time served, Preska ordered Bitar to forfeit $40 million, his home and other properties.

In the plea deal, both sides agreed that federal sentencing guidelines, which aren't binding, call for Bitar to serve 6 1/2 years to 8 years and a month in prison.

Bitar was one of 11 people charged by the government in April 2011 in connection with the online gambling sites Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars and Absolute Poker.

"Mr. Bitar is the most culpable, in the government's view," Assistant U.S. Atty. Arlo Devlin Brown told Preska. Prosecutors agreed to the non-prison sentence because of Bitar's "extraordinary medical circumstances," he said.

Prosecutors from the office of Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, charged Bitar along with Nelson Burtnick, head of Full Tilt's payment processing department. They accused Full Tilt of soliciting new online gamblers after the business was outlawed in the U.S.

Bitar also lied to investors about the security of their money, falsely saying that it was kept in separate accounts, the government said.

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