The poker world was shaken Friday as the owners of the three largest online poker sites -- PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker -- were charged with bank fraud, illegal gambling offenses and money laundering.
The Manhattan U.S. Attorney announced the indictments of those involved with the online poker sites as well as those who were responsible for the financial transactions. The 11 defendants are Isai Scheinberg and P.T. (PokerStars), Raymond Bitar and Nelson Burtnick (Full Tilt Poker), Scott Tom and Brent Beckley (Absolute Poker) and Ryan Lang, Ira Rubin, Bradley Franzen, Chad Elie and John Campos (involved with payment processors).
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in the indictment: "As charged, these defendants concocted an elaborate criminal fraud scheme, alternately tricking some U.S. banks and effectively bribing others to assure the continued flow of billions in illegal gambling profits.
The companies are all based overseas. The indictment sought $3 billion in money laundering penalties and forfeiture from the defendants.
The charges are conspiracy to violate Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), violation of UIGEA, operation of illegal gambling business, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and wire fraud, and money laundering conspiracy . Maximum penalties from these charges range from five years in prison and a $250,000 fine to 30 years in prison and a $1,000,000 fine (or twice the gross gain or loss).
"These defendants, knowing full well that their business with U.S. customers and U.S. banks was illegal, tried to stack the deck," said Janice Fedarcyk, FBI assistant director-in-charge. "They lied to banks about the true nature of their business. Then, some of the defendants found banks willing to flout the law for a fee. The defendants bet the house that they could continue their scheme, and they lost."
The complaint also alleged that these companies used "fraudulent methods" to trick financial institutions into receiving payments.
"[The sites] arranged for the money received from U.S. gamblers to be disguised as payments to hundreds of non-existent online merchants purporting to sell merchandise such as jewelry and golf balls."
"On behalf of the millions of poker players across the country, we are shocked at the action taken by the U.S. Department of Justice today against online poker companies and will continue to fight for Americans' right to participate in the game they enjoy," said the Poker Players Alliance in a news release. "Online poker is not a crime and should not be treated as such. We are currently gathering all of the information around today's announcement and will offer detailed analysis when the full facts become available."
The past few years, there have been numerous seizures and indictments of payment processors in the United States who were handling the financial transactions of the online poker sites. As processors continued to be targeted and shut down by federal prosecutors, the sites turned to a new direction to the point that sites "purchased the principals of a few small, local banks" that were facing tough financial times "in return for multi-million dollar investments in the banks."
Campos and Elie were arrested Friday morning, and the Southern District of New York has stated it is working with Interpol to arrest those located abroad.
PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker have prohibited online poker players in the United States from participating in real-money gaming. Absolute Poker is still offering American players access to their sites.
ESPN.com contacted Carolyn Sullivan of the U.S. Department of Justice, but she was unable to comment at this time. PokerStars did not reply to ESPN.com's interview request.
Full Tilt Poker released a statement regarding the charges.
"I am surprised and disappointed by the government's decision to bring these charges," Bitar said. "I look forward to Mr. Burtnick's and my exoneration."
Poker Stars and Full Tilt are sponsors of ESPN poker programming.
Andrew Feldman is the poker editor for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.