More than two years after “Black Friday” – the day on which federal prosecutors shut down the U.S. operations of Full Tilt Poker and other major online poker providers and seized billions of dollars in assets – it appears that the final chapter in that enforcement action may soon be written.
The Garden City Group, the entity responsible for claims administration for repayment of Full Tilt Poker players, announced on August 1 that it would soon begin that remission process. Remission of funds to Full Tilt Poker’s U.S. players was made possible because of PokerStars’ payments pursuant to its settlement of civil forfeiture claims with the government. And, due at least in part to advocacy by the Poker Players Alliance (PPA), the calculation formula to be used for the process will be based on players’ final balances as of April 15, 2011, and not on the amount that they originally deposited into their Full Tilt Poker accounts.
Following the Black Friday asset seizures, PokerStars reached a settlement with the United States under which it forfeited $547 million to the U.S. government and agreed to repay approximately $184 million to former customers of Full Tilt Poker outside the United States. One of the valuable aspects of this settlement, from the perspective of former Full Tilt Poker players in the United States, was that it created a fund of money for repayment of players that would not otherwise have existed due to Full Tilt Poker’s financial status at the time of the seizure.
The settlement provided that the United States would oversee a remission process pursuant to which it would return funds to Full Tilt Poker players, but the law governing those processes vests the government with enormous discretion in, among other things, the manner in which the government calculates the amount to be distributed to each recipient. In the case of Full Tilt Poker’s U.S. players, the government was considering an approach that would have based the payment to each player on the amount he or she had deposited into a Full Tilt Poker account, regardless of the wins or losses in that account thereafter.
An alternative approach was to base the payment on the balance remaining in the account on April 15, 2011 – the last day on which the player could have accessed his or her account. The PPA and other advocates of this approach point out that this was a truer measure of the “loss” that each player suffered; to the extent that a player’s balance was lower on that date than his or her initial deposit, it was not due to any wrongdoing but rather a result of poker play. A player who received his or her initial deposit that was greater than the balance on that date would receive an unjustified windfall by recouping money lost fairly in playing online poker. Thus, to use deposit amounts as the basis for remission would effectively redistribute funds among players in a way that was unrelated to the purpose of the seizure and remission. This would have been inconsistent with applicable regulations’ definition of the “victim” to receive remission in terms of the loss suffered “as a direct result of the commission of the offense underlying a forfeiture.” (See 28 C.F.R. § 9.2(v)).
Advocates also expressed concerns that a “deposit”-based refund process would be unduly complicated, and would create inequities between foreign Full Tilt Poker players and U.S. PokerStars players, who received refunds based upon account balances.
It remains to be seen whether Full Tilt Poker’s U.S. players will receive the full amount of their account balances or a proportionally smaller amount – a decision that will be based on whether the amount available for remission is equal to or greater than the aggregate amount of claims filed for such refunds. But the decision to base remission on account balances and the indication that the long-delayed process will start soon are both positive signs that Full Tilt Poker’s U.S. players may soon be made whole from their Black Friday losses.