Black Friday Prosecutor Preet Bharara Ousted as US Attorney, Defies Call to Resign

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US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, the man responsible for the prosecutions of the 13 Black Friday poker figures, as well as  several other high-profile gaming-relating cases, was fired over the weekend after being asked to resign by President Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Bharara refused to step down voluntarily from his post.

Preet Bharara
Preet Bharara, the prosecutor who spearheaded cases against the 13 Black Friday poker figures, as well as Travell Thomas and Billy Walters, said he was fired on Friday by the Trump Administration after refusing to resign. (Image: Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The Indian-born attorney, appointed by President Obama in August 2009, refused to go gently into that good night.

“I did not resign,” Bharara posted on his personal Twitter account. “Moments ago I was fired. Being the US Attorney in SDNY will forever be the greatest honor of my professional life.”

The White House did not confirm the action, only saying that Bharara was no longer in that position. Ironically, the president held a meeting with the colorful prosecutor shortly after his election at Trump Tower, where he reportedly told the attorney he wanted him to stay at his post.

Familiar Name to Poker Players

One of Bharara’s most high-profile cases was dubbed “Black Friday,” when on April 15, 2011, he implicated 13 high-ranking officials at major online poker sites, including Isai Scheinberg, founder of PokerStars, and Tom Scott, creator of Absolute Poker.

Bharara contended that these individuals had violated the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) and engaged in bank fraud and money laundering. The Department of Justice froze 75 bank accounts used by the Internet gambling companies. FBI and DOJ seals notifying seizure of the domain were placed on the home pages of PokerStars, Absolute Poker, and Full Tilt.

Players accounts were instantly inaccessible and US rounders were not allowed to partake in games on those sites, while their bankrolls froze. Although PokerStars purchase of FullTilt and subsequent payback to most players somewhat eased the pain, those with money on Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet never got their money back.

The indictments also led to other related scandals, such as the government contention that Howard Lederer, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, and Rafe Furst had defrauded players, and that Full Tilt Poker “was not a legitimate poker company, but a global Ponzi scheme” that owed approximately $390 million to players worldwide, including about $150 million to American players.

Other Gamblers Targeted

While Bharara never publicly discussed an agenda against poker players and other gamblers, he did lead actions against several connected to the gaming universe.

Travell Thomas, a two-time World Series of Poker Circuit winner, found himself in the lawyer’s sights for “orchestrating a scheme to coerce thousands of victims across the country, through false threats and representations, into paying a total of more than $31 million to the Company to resolve debts,” according to a 2016 release from the attorney’s office.

Thomas, who is African-American, originally played the race card against Bharara’s charges, claiming no one else in his position had ever been hit so hard with judgments. But by November 2016, he’d done a complete about-face, and pled guilty to all charges. The 38-year-old claimed he suffered from addiction issues and bipolar disorder. He could potentially face up to 40 years in prison when sentenced on April 20.

Another prominent case is that against Las Vegas sports bettor Billy Walters. Charged with conspiracy, securities fraud and wire fraud in connection to an alleged insider trader arrangement that also involved PGA Tour player, Phil Mickelson, Walter’s trial is set to begin this week.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) told CBS New York that he was stunned by the news about Bharara’s dismissal.

“I was extremely surprised and disappointed,” Schumer said. “The president’s decision to change his mind and fire Preet says far more about the president than it does about Preet.”

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