Who knew Charles Ponzi also was a card shark? The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) yesterday filed a civil suit accusing professional poker players and owners of online poker website Full Tilt Poker of bluffing its members out of their money.
The suit accuses the gambling website’s board of directors Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson, Rafael Furst and Raymond Bitar of defrauding its online poker players out of more than $440 million. The government alleges the board misrepresented that players’ funds were safe and available for withdrawal at any time when, in reality, those funds were not available and used to pay the board members and other owners.
"As the proposed Amended Complaint describes in detail, Full Tilt was not a legitimate poker company, but a global Ponzi scheme,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a release. “As a result of our enforcement actions this alleged self-dealing scheme came to light. Not only did the firm orchestrate a massive fraud against the U.S. banking system, as previously alleged, Full Tilt also cheated and abused its own players to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Full Tilt began having problems accepting new bets from players in 2010 after the U.S. government came down on online gambling payment-processing services, but the board members kept their hands in the coffers anyway.
According to the DOJ, between April 2007 and April 2011, Bitar received about $41 million, Lederer received about $42 million, Ferguson received at least $25 million and Furst about $11.7 million. Much of the remaining money was transferred to other board members, and now resides in offshore and Swiss accounts.
In order to maintain the appearance of security, the website continued to credit players’ accounts without ever disclosing its inability to fund the credits. When players gambled with the “phantom funds” and lost to other players, a massive shortfall quickly developed, the DOJ said.
Last August, Full Tilt acknowledged that it had problems processing player money and said that it lost $115 million to government seizure and another $42 million to theft by a third-party processor, the Wall Street Journal reports.
For more, read expanded coverage in the Wall Street Journal.