By Basil Katz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The chief of Full Tilt Poker surrendered to authorities on Monday and pleaded not guilty to charges of illegal gambling and that the online poker operator defrauded its players.
Raymond Bitar,40, had been working at Full Tilt's Dublin, Ireland, headquarters, and until Monday had not returned to the United States since charges against him were first announced in April 2011.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have charged 11 people at the three biggest online poker companies: Absolute Poker, Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars. The U.S. government also seized their Internet domain names.
At a hearing late on Monday in Manhattan federal court, Bitar pleaded not guilty to nine criminal counts, including illegal gambling, money laundering and wire fraud charges.
Online gambling has been illegal in the United States since 2006, the year Bitar moved Full Tilt's operations to Ireland. Some U.S. lawmakers have talked recently about legalizing Internet gambling and regulating it.
Since unveiling the case, prosecutors have expanded both their civil and criminal charges against Full Tilt. They say it operates as a Ponzi scheme and paid its directors more than $440 million while defrauding players, even after the charges were filed.
Prosecutors say Full Tilt, founded in 2004, has taken in about $1 billion from players in the United States. They estimate that Full Tilt still owes $350 million to customers in the United States.
Full Tilt and Bitar have denied the Ponzi scheme accusations.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra Freeman at Monday's court hearing denied a prosecutor's request to refuse bail for Bitar, and set his release on a $2.5 million bond. He will, however, remain jailed until all the bail conditions are met.
Prosecutor Arlo Devlin-Brown said Bitar's decision to stay in Ireland rather than face U.S. charges showed he was at risk of flight. Devlin-Brown said that Bitar had remained in Ireland to operate Full Tilt's fraud against its players.
"He was running it, I submit, because the company was at this point little more than a Ponzi scheme and he had to be there to prevent it from unraveling," said prosecutor Arlo Devlin-Brown.
Bitar, a U.S. citizen from near Los Angeles, California, said in a statement that he had stayed in Ireland to work on "possible solutions to get the players repaid."
Tiltware, a California-based company, owns all the Full Tilt Poker entities.
Absolute Poker co-owner Brent Beckley pleaded guilty in December to conspiring to break U.S. laws against gambling on the Internet. He also pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and wire fraud. His sentencing is scheduled for July 23.
The case is USA v. Tzvetkoff et al, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York No. 10-cr-00336
(Reporting By Basil Katz; Editing by Eric Walsh)