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International ramifications could flow from US indictments

Massive coverage continued over the weekend of the US Department of Justice actions against executives associated with Pokerstars, Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker and UB, with reports in the Los Angeles Times and the Financial Times that Interpol may be called upon to assist in pursuing defendants residing outside the USA.

On Friday the Manhattan U.S. Attorney unsealed indictments that include very serious banking offences, naming 11 defendants including Isai Scheinberg and Paul Tate of PokerStars, Raymond Bitar and Nelson Burtnick of Full Tilt Poker, Scott Tom and Brent Beckley (Absolute Poker) and payment processors Ryan Lang, Ira Rubin, Bradley Franzen, Chad Elie and John Campos.

The indictment alleges: "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 indictment seeks $3 billion in money laundering penalties and forfeiture from the defendants, who's companies are all based outside US jurisdiction.

Campos and Elie have been picked up, but others named in the indictment live outside the United States, leading to speculation that US authorities have requested the assistance of international police enforcement body Interpol.

Reports mention the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, claiming that it has revealed that it is working with Interpol to secure the cooperation of defendants located abroad.

In other moves, the Department of Justice seized the .com domains of the websites involved, working through the US based ICAAN which administers these internet addresses. That forced the companies to re-route to .eu addresses, leaving the dotcom pages with intimidating official seals and warnings from enforcement authorities.

This seizure of property belonging to international companies could in itself resurrect the still legally unresolved questions surrounding a similar action by the state of Kentucky three years ago.

Rooted in the Justice Department's belief and opinion that online gambling is illegal in the United States, the charges are nevertheless mainly banking oriented, or revolve around the UIGEA, a contentious law passed in 2006 and designed to disrupt financial transactions between US players and 'illegal' online gambling sites.

The charges include conspiracy to violate and violation of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA); conspiracy to commit bank fraud and wire fraud; and money laundering conspiracy. Maximum penalties range from five years in prison and a $250,000 fine to 30 years in prison and a $1,000,000 fine, or an amount calculated at twice the gross gain or loss.

Janice Fedarcyk, FBI assistant director-in-charge, said: "These defendants, knowing full well that their business with U.S. customers and U.S. banks was illegal, tried to stack the deck. 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 indictments allege that the defendants indulged in elaborate schemes designed to conceal or misrepresent the true nature of financial transactions, including setting up "...hundreds of non-existent online merchants purporting to sell merchandise such as jewelry and golf balls."

In other developments, Nevada politician and former US Attorney Greg Brower called for both state and federal enquiries to be conducted into the political activities of Pokerstars, which has been supporting attempts to legalise intrastate online poker in Nevada.

Referencing the indictments and political lobbying activity by the online poker giant, Brower observed:

"The fact that a foreign company which has been charged with operating a criminal enterprise could play such a large role in Nevada (political) campaigns is troubling. Federal law clearly prohibits foreign contributions to federal, state, and local campaigns. Nevada law is not so clear, but should be.

"I am reviewing this issue with legislative counsel and plan to introduce legislation, if necessary, to ensure that any loopholes in our state law are closed immediately.

"In addition, I will be discussing this matter with both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Nevada enforcement authorities to determine whether federal and state investigations into PokerStars’ activities in Nevada are warranted.

"Nevada’s gaming industry and regulatory regime are the very best in the world, and it is critical that we take swift action to ensure that we maintain the unquestioned integrity of both."

One name that keeps surfacing in numerous articles, especially in the Australian media, is that of former Brisbane-based Intabill e-cash processor Daniel Tzvetkoff.

This young entrepreneur's high profile lifestyle and arrest whilst visiting a conference in Las Vegas last year made headlines around the world. His apprehension by US federal authorities allegedly followed a tip off from sources close to Full Tilt Poker, which had a substantial financial claim against his company.

His involvement in the current crisis is, it is claimed, because he has cooperated extensively with federal authorities to save his own skin. There are unconfirmed reports that he is no longer in jail, but that he and his fiancée, Nicole Crisp, are in a 'safe house' in New York as valuable informers for the state.

That said, there have been several major e-processor busts in the United States in more recent times, and in each case the authorities have constructed plea bargain deals that include cooperating in federal investigations.

Despite the current focus on serious banking offences, several legal experts have come forward to opine that ultimately the legal argument will have to revolve around the largely untested DoJ opinion that online gambling is illegal under the rather antiquated Wire Act - drafted long before the advent of the Internet.

Enforcement officials have deployed a number of tactics to convince companies associated with online gambling that the pastime is de facto illegal, ranging from arresting businessmen in transit through the USA to communicating with publications carrying internet gambling adverts and advising them that they 'may' be contravening federal law by doing so.

Usually the mere suggestion that federal authorities believe the pastime is illegal, carrying the implication that they may take action is enough to deter all but the most tenacious, but there are many who claim that this key issue of legality has yet to be fully tested and decided in a senior court of law.

Most prosecutions have avoided this, with the probably terrified defendant accepting a plea bargain and an agreement to provide information.

Certainly both Pokerstars and Full Tilt Poker have repeatedly asserted that they have been diligent in seeking the most expert legal opinions before making decisions based on the legality of online poker in the United States.

There appears to be some industry consensus that the US legal situation vis-a-vis online gambling is a 'grey' area, and that there is a real need for either precise and weighty judicial precedents to be established or a clearer Congressional process whereby lawmakers define exactly what is 'illegal' and what is not in the confusing maze that is US federal law.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times over the weekend, respected gaming lawyer Anthony Cabot opined: "This is the opening shot - but I think they without exception have their legal arguments in hand.

“This is really just an opportunity to finally vet the question as to whether their operations have been compliant.”

The old adage that 'it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good' comes to mind when looking at some of the immediate consequences of the indictments.

Bodog Poker was quick to seek an advantage in the situation, with US players reporting the receipt of promotional emails assuring them that despite the hassles its rivals were experiencing, it was open for business.

“Having trouble finding a place to play now that PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker, and UltimateBet have been shut down to U.S. players?" The emails and website copy read.

"Bodog is still open for online poker play and is also giving all U.S. players a whopping 110% bonus with 10% paid up front.”

The tactic appears to be working, with the independent online poker monitoring site Pokerscout reporting that Bodog traffic has soared 25%.

Pokerscout also reports that since the indictments were unveiled, PokerStars cash game traffic declined 20% between Friday and Saturday alone. And compared with pre-indictment traffic, the decline is 33%.

Full Tilt numbers show a similar, if not worse, trend, with cash game players between Friday and Saturday declining 44%, and compared with pre-indictment traffic a drop of 50%.

Blanca Games's Cereus Network, which carries the other two sites impacted by the indictments - Absolute Poker and UB.com - was down 26% between Friday and Saturday and almost 40% down when compared to pre-indictment activity.

Admittedly, this may be a knee jerk player reaction that could relax when the initial shock of the US enforcement initiative wears off, but the declines and the financial losses involved are substantial.

Bodog was not the only beneficiary, it appears. Pokerscout also notes that Merge Poker Network recorded an increase in cash game players between Friday and Saturday of 15%, which increases to 23% when compared to its pre-indictment performance.

The Cake Poker Network's benefit was less impressive and maybe even unattributable, rising only 1% between Friday and Saturday, and only 9% over the week, but then one of its biggest skins - Victory Poker - does not accept US action.

Finally, the Canadian portal Poker.ca pointed out that Canadian players alarmed by developments in the US and the possible security of their deposits should take heart from the fact that several top sites could be used as alternatives to Pokerstars et al.

"Now that these huge but ultimately precarious sites have been hit with severe and potentially fatal lawsuits from the American government, players in Canada know exactly where to look for stable and reliable online poker entertainment," the editorial reads.

"Rather than trust sites that are not publically traded, it’s time to face reality and focus on sites like 888 Poker, William Hill Poker, and Winner Poker. These sites, which accept Canadian players but not Americans, are public companies that operate outside the notorious legal grey area that sites like Pokerstars and Fulltilt found themselves in."

Source: InfoPowa News

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