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NEW YORK (AP) - An Internet poker company founder accused of operating his business like a Ponzi scheme pleaded guilty to conspiracy Monday, but was spared from prison because he needs a heart transplant and could die behind bars.

Raymond Bitar of Glendora, Calif. appeared via videotape from a Los Angeles courtroom before U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Preska in Manhattan. The founder of Full Tilt Poker was immediately sentenced to time served and had to give up his assets as part of his plea deal.

The judge noted that federal sentencing guidelines called for Bitar to serve more than six years in prison. She agreed that his heart troubles were so serious that prison would likely be a "sentence of death."

Even the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said it could not provide the medical service Bitar needs, Preska said. She added that incarceration also could make him less likely to get a heart transplant.

"I don't think anyone would trade positions with him no matter what," Preska said.

Bitar flew from Ireland during the summer to face charges in a prosecution that shut down U.S. operations for the three largest Internet poker companies.

During his plea, he said he conspired with others to find ways to process hundreds of millions of dollars of gambling revenues through U.S. banks by disguising the income as money generated by phony companies that seemed unrelated to gambling.

He said that he and others falsely promised customers that their money was safe and secure and that funds were held in segregated accounts.

"I regret my actions. I know they were wrong and illegal. I am very sorry," Bitar said.

Prosecutors said nearly $300 million owed to players worldwide was missing. His lawyers have said he was helping recover money.

Although the government did not request a prison sentence for Bitar because of his health, a prosecutor noted that authorities believe he was the most culpable of 11 people charged in the case.


(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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