By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former chief executive of Full Tilt Poker, an online poker company, pleaded guilty on Monday to violating U.S. anti-Internet gambling laws, but he avoided prison time due to his failing health.
Raymond Bitar, 41, is suffering from "severe heart failure," Assistant U.S. Attorney Arlo Devlin-Brown said at a federal court hearing in Manhattan. In an expedited court process, Bitar was also sentenced to time served and ordered to forfeit $40 million.
Bitar was one of 11 people, including the owners of two other online poker companies, who federal prosecutors charged in 2011 with illegal Internet gambling.
He appeared via video conference from a California courtroom.
"I regret my actions, I know they were wrong and illegal," he said.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska said Bitar's "precarious health situation" drove her sentencing decision.
"Good luck to you sir, and good luck to your family," Preska said to Bitar at the end of the hearing.
Full Tilt, along with Absolute Poker and PokerStars, were among the largest online poker companies. Prosecutors said they tricked banks into processing billions of dollars of illegal Internet gambling proceeds through shell companies that appeared legitimate.
Bitar had been charged with nine criminal counts, including operation of an illegal gambling business, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy.
He pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act and one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and wire fraud. Bitar admitted to lying to customers about the safety of their money with the company.
At one point, there was a $350 million gap between what Full Tilt owed customers and how much cash it had available, Devlin-Brown said at the hearing.
Bitar faced a maximum of 35 years in prison. John Baughman, one of his lawyers, requested that his client not be sent to prison given his health condition.
Bitar's health is so dire he has to wear a defibrillator under his clothes, Baughman said after the hearing. Prosecutors agreed not to oppose a sentence that included no prison time.
Bitar served seven days in jail last summer while negotiating his bail, Baughman said at the hearing.
Brent Beckley, an owner of Absolute Poker, was sentenced to 14 months in prison last year after he admitted deceiving banks over the processing of gambling proceeds. A settlement between that company and the government is pending, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan.
Isle of Man-based PokerStars, the world's most popular poker company, agreed to forfeit $731 million in a 2012 settlement with U.S. authorities, which included $547 million to reimburse Full Tilt's U.S. customers. PokerStars also took control Full Tilt under the agreement.
The companies had emerged as dominant sites for Web gamblers in the United States after Congress banned real-money gambling on online card games in 2006 and other companies withdrew from the market.
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 Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Martha Graybow and Leslie Adler)