Late this afternoon in the Federal Courthouse in New York City, Jack Baughman, attorney for Ray Bitar, stood before the judge and explained that the defense and the prosecution have reached an agreement that would provide no prison term for Bitar.
The provision apparently agreed to by the parties will see Bitar plead guilty to at least two felony charges and will require him to forfeit nearly all the money he earned a Full Tilt Poker, including his home and other real estate and investments.
Bitar, former CEO of Full Tilt Poker, was indicted by the U.S. Attorneys Office on “Black Friday”, April 15, 2011, charged with numerous felonies related to online poker in the U.S. Further charges were added when Bitar returned to the U.S. and surrendered to authorities last summer. He has remained free on bail since July 2012, but wears an electronic monitoring device, residing in Southern California.
Baughman explained to Judge Loretta A Preska, Chief U.S. District Judge, and the sitting Judge in Bitar’s case, that his request to the court entails the judge agreeing to hear, and presumably accept, a guilty plea from Bitar and sentence him the same day. Normally there would be a 90 day period in which presentencing investigations and reports are completed.
That 90 days could prove more critical to Bitar than anyone may have realized. Bitar is suffering from a severe heart condition, diagnosed in November 2012, that can be treated no other way than through a heart transplant, or the implementation of “an artificial heart”. Baughman presented the court with Bitar’s medical records for her review, and he advised the court, that the defense and prosecution with the medical issues in mind, have been working toward some resolution in this case since January.
If Judge Preska agrees to the back-to-back plea and sentencing, the conditions under which that would happen are still being worked out. According to his physicians, Bitar is too ill too travel back to New York City, so the possibility of his appearance via video camera in the courtroom is the only option. He presumably would plead and be sentenced, while appearing live on camera for the Judge to see. The prosecution suggested that to maintain the obligation that the court has to assure that the defendant is competent at time of plea, (among other conditions), that Bitar should appear before a judge in Los Angeles while simultaneously transmitting that plea via video camera live into a New York courtroom. The Judge in California would hear the plea, make a recommendation to the court in NY to accept the plea, and if the Judge here agrees, Bitar would be sentenced immediately.
While the logistics are being worked on, it should be noted that Bitar would be making his plea and taking a huge chance with Judge Preska agreeing to a non-incarceration sentence. Bitar likely decided he has little choice and can delay no longer. His attorney quoted from medical documents where the chief heart transplant surgeon that would be performing the operation classed Bitar as having, at best, a 50% survival expectation over the next 6-12 month period. His technical medical status is classed as NYHA Class 4 for a heart failure patient. According to Baughman, this is the highest and most severe classification possible.
The possibility of non-incarceration for Bitar is the only option for him to become eligible to even be considered for a heart transplant. One of the criteria to become a recipient is that there is no prospect for any prison sentence. The transplant centers have concluded that incarceration is incompatible with the lifelong care required following transplantation. For this reason, a deferred sentence, or even probation, would not be an option to be put on the transplant waiting list.
If the plea takes place as expected, and is accepted, the Judge has total discretion as to sentencing. She could agree to the request by the defense, or she could in fact, sentence Bitar up to 35 years in a federal prison. He will not know the answer to that until she makes that ruling.
While the prosecution did not make recommendations for the no-prison sentence for Bitar, they did say that they would not oppose the expedited sentencing or lack of incarceration, if the Judge so rules.
The Judge will be reviewing the binder of documents handed to her today, and the clerk of the court will be coordinating with the California courts to set some date in the near future for the plea to take place. The defense requested that the plea and sentencing take place prior to May 6, which is when Bitar is scheduled for a meeting with the transplant unit to determine his suitability to be placed on the list. The court issued a control date of April 19 or sooner.
Bitar attorney Jack Baughman conceded “this is a very unusual situation, and takes into consideration very unique circumstances. We appreciate that the government has worked with us to reach a result that will be fair on all sides”.