Gambling has a long and scandalous history in the United States. Recently the legality of online gambling has become the target of scrutiny by the U.S. government. In his article, After Crackdown, Future of Online Poker Sites Thrown Into Jeopardy, Ashby Jones eloquently writes, “For years, online gambling sites have existed in a sort of shadowy legal netherworld, in many cases operating under the auspices of foreign law — but easily reaching into the U.S.” Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) took steps to stop this multi-billion dollar industry from operating within the U.S. On April 15, the FBI and the DOJ together with the Manhattan U.S. Attorney shut down 3 of the most popular Internet poker sites: Pokerstars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker. In fact, visitors to these sites were met with FBI and DOJ seals and the following notice: “This domain name has been seized by the FBI pursuant to an arrest warrant.” Furthermore, 11 officials of these sites were named as defendants: Isai Scheinberg and Paul Tate (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). All face charges of fraud, money laundering and/or illegal gambling offenses. Their bank accounts and the accounts of thousands of online poker players were frozen. The U.S. also filed a civil money laundering and forfeiture complaint against the defendants seeking more than $3 billion dollars in damages. If convicted, some of the defendants face up to 30 years in prison and $1,000,000 fines.
Since the enactment of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in 2006, it has been illegal for sites to “knowingly accept” most forms of payment “in connection with the participation of another person in unlawful Internet gambling.” While the UIGEA caused many sites to stop accepting payments from U.S. players, the defendants’ sites profited by catering to U.S. players from overseas. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara alleges that, “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.” Moreover, she alleges that, “In their zeal to circumvent the gambling laws, the defendants also engaged in massive money laundering and bank fraud.” For example, the indictment alleges, “that defendants Isai Scheinberg and Paul Tate of PokerStars, Raymond Bitar and Nelson Burtnick of Full Tilt Poker, and Scott Tom and Brent Beckley of Absolute Poker, 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.” Then, to accomplish their fraud, these sites highly compensated payment processors – including defendants Ryan Lang, Ira Rubin, Bradley Franzen and Chad Elie – who in turn lied to banks about the nature of the financial transactions they were processing, and covered up those lies by, creating phony corporations and websites to disguise payments to the poker sites. After U.S. banks and financial institutions detected and shut down multiple fraudulent bank accounts, the indictment alleges that some small failing banks were persuaded to process illegal player payments in return for multi-million dollar investments.
Although the DOJ issued a press release stating that, “No individual player accounts were ever frozen or restrained, and each implicated poker company has at all times been free to reimburse any player’s deposited funds,” it is unlikely that this will be a quick and easy process for players. This is further evidenced by Full Tilt Poker’s press release: “[U]nfortunately, there remain significant practical and legal impediments to returning funds to players in the immediate future.” In addition to the numerous legal and jurisdictional issues, Full Tilt Poker contends that there is no authorized channel through which to make refunds; there is no accounting of the player funds seized by the government; and the government has not agreed to return players’ seized funds. Poker Stars’ press release, while more optimistic, is very vague. “Returning U.S. players’ funds is a top priority for PokerStars and the company can now start the process of returning money to its former U.S. customers.” Currently Absolute Poker has not made any agreement with the government to facilitate the return of players’ money.
Moreover, the indictment continues to greatly impact the poker industry. Since the indictment most poker sites have stopped accepting U.S. players. ESPN announced they will remove all poker-related programming and advertising from its family of networks (except for this year’s World Series of Poker). While cardplayers.com reports a notable increase in traffic at some brick and motor casinos, other casinos throughout the Unites States report negligible changes in traffic.
Still, many argue that the U.S. Government’s actions violated international law. According to Matt Hayes, author of, Lock Poker is the New King of Online Poker in the USA, Lock Poker, an Antigua-based Cereus Poker Network is seeking intervention by the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has has already said that the UIGEA violates the U.S.’ obligation under the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) provisions requiring open market access. Nevertheless, the law apparently remains in full effect.
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