Robert Mueller, FBI Investigations, and What Poker Players Already Know

With Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 American election continuing to entrench itself in the news cycle, information overload abounds. On Tuesday, a lawyer for President Donald Trump told media that White House interviews were done. Believable? For all the guesswork swirling around this case, poker players should have less trouble than most making sense of it all, because many remember going through something similar in 2011.

Robert Mueller

Robert Mueller was head of the FBI during investigations into online poker that ultimately led to Black Friday, so we know a thing or two about how his game works. (Image: Larry Downing/Reuters)

While poker’s Black Friday isn’t quite the same as political collaboration with a foreign adversary, DOJ actions against Full Tilt, PokerStars, and AP/UB do provide insight into what Mueller and his investigators might be up to. After all, he was director of the FBI from 2001-2013, making him the man in charge when the US government was building its case against online poker.

Some lessons learned about what to expect as this story unfolds:

1. Prosecutors Exaggerate

When Black Friday hit, players were shocked to read the formal allegations of crimes some of their heroes supposedly committed. According to the DOJ, Full Tilt Poker was a “global Ponzi scheme.” But really it wasn’t, at least not in a Bernie Madoff way. Whatever the Feds dig up, they’ll probably make it sound worse than it really was. It’s part of “throwing the book” at the indicted, and gives leverage when making plea bargains and financial settlements.

2. Money Trail Takedowns

Financial transactions leave fingerprints, and the FBI has been doing forensic accounting since the days of Al Capone. In online poker’s case, companies moved millions of dollars across multiple international borders daily, and authorities were able to track down miscoded transactions disguised as golf ball purchases. And though the FBI may not have raided every monetary laundromat, they did find enough to reverse-engineer the money flow. No reason to expect anything less from Mueller this go-round.

3. Canaries Will Sing

Daniel Tzvetkoff was a fast-living 20-something who got nabbed a year before Black Friday. He was the third payment processor arrested in 2010, and the first (in history) charged with violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA). Faced with 70 years in prison, he “flipped,” providing evidence of illegal transactions, and insight into how the whole system worked, which is exactly what the DOJ needed for a Black Friday. 

It’s already started to happen in the Trump-Russia Saga, with four arrests and two convictions already. If it’s anything like we saw with poker, they’re not going to be the last.

4. Bad Boys Don’t Stop Being Bad

Charges in a major FBI investigation can keep piling up. In poker’s case, efforts by representatives for two companies to convince players that their money was safe when it wasn’t turned favorite pros into pariahs and resulted in more criminal charges. Just because someone got arrested doesn’t mean crimes are done being committed. We’ve heard before about coverups being worse than the crime. In today’s political terms, Mueller may be looking at the 2016 election, but action since then could prove more damaging.

5. Somebody’s Going Up the River

Putting away bad guys is what prosecutors do. And at a certain point in any investigation, they’re going to want something to show for their efforts. Of 11 indictments on the original Black Friday complaint, all but three spent time behind bars (ranging from a few months to three years).

While this case’s story was rooted in finance, in today’s political climate, federal prosecutors aren’t going to convene two criminal grand juries without a near-certain possibility of locking somebody up (and it’s not gonna be Hillary Clinton).

6. Biggest Fish Can Buy Their Freedom

Don’t be surprised if some people who seem like obvious villains end up walking. PokerStars CEO Isai Scheinberg was the top name on the Black Friday indictment, but after paying nearly $730 million in fines and bailout money for other online poker sites, the court allowed a wanted man to sell his company for $4.9 billion.

Full Tilt CEO Ray Bitar pleaded guilty to felony fraud, money laundering, and UIGEA violations, but spent only seven days in jail on a sentence of “time served” after turning over multiple houses and surrendering $40 million in assets.

7. Nothing Happens Quickly

Whatever becomes of the current investigation, the wheels of justice move slowly. An investigation into online poker was ongoing for about two years before Black Friday. Negotiating settlements took another couple years. The luckiest online poker players saw their money some three to 12 months after Black Friday. But final payouts (to AP/UB players) just began this year, in 2017.  

Whatever happens in Trump-Russia investigations, if someone other than Mueller says it will wrap up in a few weeks, poker players should feel confident betting the over.

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