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Jeff Ifrah Quoted in Wall Street Journal on Analysis of Full Tilt Poker Case.

Attorneys for Full Tilt Poker on Wednesday fired back at the U.S. Justice Department’s civil case against the poker website, decrying the government’s assertion that their company ran a massive “Ponzi scheme” that allegedly bilked Internet poker players out of $300 million.

“While the government has obviously taken issue with the underlying activities of FTP, under any reasonable interpretation, the world-wide operations of the online cardroom are not a so-called Ponzi scheme,” said Ian Imrich, an attorney for Full Tilt owner and board member Chris Ferguson.

Poker players Chris Ferguson, right, and Howard Lederer attended a roundtable discussion held by the Poker Players Alliance in April. Mr. Ferguson is the owner of Full Tilt, and Mr. Ferguson was among those who started site.

The issues at Full Tilt should be likened to that of a problematic bank, rather than an illegal investment scheme, according to Jeff Ifrah, an attorney who represents the company in related litigation and is the personal attorney of Chief Executive Raymond Bitar. “A Ponzi scheme requires an investment vehicle in order to receive a certain rate of high return,” Mr. Ifrah said. “None of those things happened here.” Instead, he said, “maybe it was mismanaged.”

The Justice Department had no comment on the attorneys’ remarks Wednesday.

The statements from Full Tilt attorneys follow an amended civil complaint filed by the Justice Department Tuesday that accused Full Tilt owners and executives of paying themselves $444 million even as funds owed to users of their site—poker players—dwindled, the government says. Government actions to limit the company’s ability to process money through banks had made it increasingly impossible to move player money into company-affiliated bank accounts, the government said.

The company, meanwhile, is fighting this week to regain its registration in the U.K.’s Channel Islands, where it has held a license to operate its online poker website. Gambling regulators there in June suspended Full Tilt’s license to operate around the world, pending further review.

Mr. Ferguson and Howard Lederer, among other top poker players, started Full Tilt in 2004 and steered it to become an online giant, used by thousands of players betting billions of dollars every year.

The allegations prompted an outcry of anger throughout poker Internet forums and social media outlets from the thousands of poker players in the U.S. who had $160 million credited to their Full Tilt poker player accounts but have not been paid the money.

They are an expansion of a civil case the U.S. government filed in April against Full Tilt, other large online poker concerns and several executives at the companies alleging money laundering, bank fraud and illegal gambling. The government also filed criminal charges against the companies and some of the company’s executives.

U.S. Alleges Poker Site Stacked Deck
Full Tilt said immediately following the charges that it “is and has always been committed to preserving the integrity of the game and abiding by the law.” The case is ongoing.

The U.S. government holds that online poker is illegal in the U.S. under various laws.

Mr. Bitar has been charged criminally with money laundering and bank fraud. Mr. Bitar, who lives outside the U.S., hasn’t been arrested for the charges.

In a statement accompanying the government complaint Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, described Full Tilt as “not a legitimate poker company, but a global Ponzi scheme.” The government didn’t use the term in its complaint.

In explaining the alleged scheme, the government, in its complaint Tuesday, said that Full Tilt Poker allowed players to gamble with “phantom money that Full Tilt Poker never actually collected or possessed,” according to the complaint. As a result, “Full Tilt Poker soon developed a massive shortfall between the money owed to United States players and the money actually collected from United States players,” the government alleged.

Also, between April 2007 and April 2011, various owners and directors of Full Tilt collected $444 million dollars from the company for themselves, the government alleges.

The shortfall continued to grow after the company stopped operating in the U.S. in April. It continued to take money from players elsewhere even though funds to pay them back were growing increasingly slim, according to people with knowledge of the situation, as well as the government filing.

The characterization that Full Tilt’s problems were a “Ponzi scheme” increases the risk that Full Tilt will permanently lose its license to operate outside of the U.S., said people familiar with the company’s situation. It also has spooked possible investors that might have helped it to pay back the more than $300 million that the government says it owes poker players, they said.

The company’s regulators, the Alderney Gambling Control Commission— the Channel Islands regulator that licenses Full Tilt—held hearings Monday and Tuesday that could determine whether to allow Full Tilt to restart operations.

At the hearings in London an investment banker from The Seaport Group working for Full Tilt testified that the company had three interested investors, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. A person reached at Seaport said the company had no comment.

Full Tilt is seeking a 30-day extension from Alderney to make its case to get its license back so that it can show the regulators that it has a plan from new owners going forward, people familiar with the matter said.

Its U.S. operations were switched off in April and its other operations stopped in June after Alderney regulators temporarily suspended its license, pending review.

Write to Alexandra Berzon at



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