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Poker site CEO arrested in multimillion Ponzi scheme

Raymond Bitar, founder of Full Tilt Poker, was arrested at JFK Airport and charged with siphoning $430 million in gamblers' winnings.

Anne Broache/CNET

The founder of an Internet poker company has been arrested and charged with operating a Ponzi scheme that allegedly bilked poker players out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Raymond Bitar, founder and CEO of Full Tilt Poker, was arrested today as he arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Bitar, 40, said in a statement issued through his lawyers that he voluntarily returned from Ireland to face charges.

"I know that a lot of people are very angry at me," Bitar said in the statement. "I understand why. Full Tilt should never have gotten into a position where it could not repay player funds."

"For the last 15 months, I have worked hard on possible solutions to get the players repaid," Bitar continued. "Returning today is part of that process. I believe we are near the end of a very long road, and I will continue to do whatever is required to get the players repaid, and I hope that it will happen soon."

The Justice Department alleges that Bitar defrauded the company's poker customers by lying to them about the safety of their funds. Full Tilt owed $350 million to players around the world while holding only $60 million to $70 million to cover payments, authorities allege. More than $430 million in gamblers' winnings were allegedly siphoned to Bitar and other owners of the online poker site.

"Bitar and Full Tilt Poker persisted in soliciting U.S. gamblers long after such conduct was outlawed," Janice K. Fedarcyk, assistant director-in-charge at the FBI, said in a statement. "Now he stands accused of defrauding Full Tilt's customers by concealing its cash-poor condition and paying off early creditors with deposits from later customers."

Bitar, who was charged with gambling, bank fraud, and money laundering offenses, faces up to 145 years in prison if convicted of all the charges.

Full Tilt Poker, the second most-popular online poker site, operated from 2004 until last year when it was shut down by the U.S. Justice Department, which accused the company of bank fraud, money laundering, and illegal gambling. The company has denied the accusations.