By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS (Reuters) - French entrepreneur Bernard Tapie risks fresh controversy by leading a rescue of betting site Full Tilt Poker which U.S. prosecutors accuse of running a Ponzi scheme.
Tapie, a friend of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has been prominent in French public life for three decades, often for his involvement in financial scandals, including one which has ensnared IMF head Christine Lagarde.
Tapie was found guilty of corruption in the 1990s and was jailed in 1997 for match-rigging when he controlled football club Olympique de Marseille.
His son Laurent Tapie, managing director of his father's holding company, has signed an exclusive agreement for Groupe Bernard Tapie to buy Full Tilt and its assets and repay money owed to Full Tilt's players, a U.S. lawyer for Full Tilt said in a phone interview.
"They are the most significant investors' group from the perspective of evidence of funding," said the lawyer, Jeff Ifrah.
"These guys are different because they have actually presented financial evidence of the fact that they can pull this off if they come to agreed-on terms with DOJ (the U.S. Department of Justice)."
U.S. federal prosecutors have accused Full Tilt of running a Ponzi scheme in which the company's owners and board members paid themselves half a billion dollars while defrauding players.
Any buyer will have to reach an agreement with the Justice Department to repay the players, and Tapie's group will begin those talks later on Monday, Ifrah said.
Full Tilt also had its gambling license revoked by the British Channel Island of Alderney Gambling Control Commission (AGCC) last month.
Bernard Tapie, 68, has re-invented himself numerous times as an actor, politician and sports commentator.
Groupe Bernard Tapie owns around 30 percent in International Stadiums Poker Tour, a poker tournament organizer.
Sarkozy's government last year legalized online poker and sports betting to boost tax revenue, a move that led to an explosion of online gambling sites.
Laurent Tapie founded the now defunct Free-goal.com and Livebetting.com sites.
In an interview with the iGambling France website, Laurent Tapie said his company has "the funds necessary to repay player debts" but that that there was "still a long way to go" before a final deal could be reached.
Separately, Bernard Tapie told Agence France Presse that his group may end up controlling "at most" 5-10 percent of a new shareholding structure for Full Tilt, suggesting there may be other investors.
"Using Full Tilt's valuation of $300 million, a figure that is doing the rounds but must be confirmed...Groupe Bernard Tapie's commitment could reach up to $30 million," French daily Les Echos said on Monday.
Tapie's name has been in the headlines this year over a 285 million euros arbitration payout he received at the end of a 15-year compensation battle against former state bank Credit Lyonnais over the sale of Adidas, the sportswear group he once controlled.
Christine Lagarde, formerly France's finance minister, approved the payment and prosecutors have accused her of complicity in the misuse of public funds. The International Monetary Fund head has denied any misconduct.
Tapie was also involved in a bitter dispute with the management of French resort operator Club Med in which he briefly held a small stake.
(Reporting By Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Christian Plumb and David Cowell)