Full Tilt Poker: $238 Million (54%) May Have Gone to Pay Taxes

As I noted last week, Full Tilt Poker allegedly paid their owners $440 million, much of that money supposedly coming from player deposits. One question I’ve been asked is, where did that money go?

Well, I don’t know where all of it went, but I do know where a large percentage of it went: The IRS and California’s Franchise Tax Board.

Full Tilt Poker has a complicated structure (to say the least) but it appears that the main vehicle for ownership was Tiltware LLC. That’s a California LLC, still active, with one Raymond Bitar listed as the agent for service. (You can look it up here.) There’s also a Tiltware Merchandise Services, LLC (another California LLC) whose agent for service is one Chris Ferguson. Mr. Bitar is under indictment in the original Black Friday (April 15th) accusations against Full Tilt; Mr. Bitar and Mr. Ferguson are among the accused in last week’s expansion of the civil claims against Full Tilt.

In any case, there were approximately 19 owners of Full Tilt. Assuming that the payments went through Tiltware, California income tax would be owed on the entire amounts of the payments. A California LLC must withhold state income tax on foreign (non-California) members (owners) of the LLC. The withholding rate is 7%. (Some of the members are Californians, and would likely owe up to 10.55% on their income. But I’ll be conservative and use 7%.) That’s a little more than $31 million into the California treasury.

Next is federal income tax. Unless the members had incredibly bozo tax professionals, they’ve paid federal income tax on all of the income they’ve received from Full Tilt. Interestingly, there were no tax charges filed with the original Black Friday indictments. Given that it is routine in allegations of financial crimes for the US Attorney’s Office to check with IRS Criminal Investigations, it’s fairly certain that Ray Bitar paid his taxes.

Using an average federal tax rate of 33%, that’s over $146 million collected in US income tax.

I assume Full Tilt is being taxed as a partnership. An LLC can elect to be taxed as either a C-Corporation or an S-Corporation. Given that Full Tilt has foreign owners, it cannot elect S-Corporation status. While it could be taxed as a C-Corp, it’s more likely that it’s being taxed as the default option, as a partnership.

That leaves self-employment tax. General partners in a partnership (those involved in the business) pay self-employment tax on their income from the partnership. Self-employment tax is at 15.3% on the first $106,800 and 2.9% thereafter. Now, not all of the Full Tilt owners would pay this, but it’s likely that the majority who received distributions did pay this. I’ll use 2% rather than 2.9% as an overall estimated rate for the effect of the limited partners. Still, that’s nearly $9 million more to the Treasury.

The total is $186 million, but that’s an understatement. And that’s probably a significant understatement. Still, even this figure represents 42% of the money distributed.

The problem with this analysis is that for federal tax purposes, tax is owed on the full amount earned, no matter what the distributions were! Suppose you have an LLC that earns $1 million, but you don’t take any withdrawals. You still owe tax on the $1 million!

At this point it’s impossible to know what this excess income was. This would be money plowed back into Full Tilt for development, etc. The estimates I’ve seen state that Full Tilt made on average $150 million a year during this time frame; that would equate to $600 million during the four-year period of 2007 – 2010. That might mean another $52 million in federal income tax and $3 million in self-employment tax have been paid. (There would also be some additional California income tax paid, by the California resident members of Full Tilt. I’ll ignore that for this analysis, but this could mean that I’m still understating the total.)

That gives a high estimate of $238 million in taxes paid, or 54% of the total of money distributed. That would leave just over $200 million for the Full Tilt owners to have actually received after taxes.

I was asked why didn’t the Full Tilt owners just loan the company money back so that they could pay the American players after Black Friday? (The Department of Justice estimates that the amount owed to US players is $150 million.) It’s simple: They don’t have the money. Much of the money has been spent or invested; it’s likely that only a small portion of the $200 million was actually sitting in cash or like funds.

What does this mean for the future? For Full Tilt, lots of legal problems and difficulties in selling the business. Yet there is a rumor that a French firm is looking at acquiring Full Tilt and contributing enough capital to pay all current customers (an estimated $300 million); Americans can only hope that this is true. It’s far more likely that Full Tilt will end up in receivership with the pieces being doled out to high bidders, and all customers receiving pennies on the dollar for whatever they had on deposit at Full Tilt.


2 Responses to “Full Tilt Poker: $238 Million (54%) May Have Gone to Pay Taxes”

  1. Patti says:

    Hey Russ… I don’t usually have the opportunity to say this to you, but I think your math is way wrong here.

    FTP owes $440M in player deposits. But they surely took in much more than that over the years, and a fair bit of what they took in was skimmed off as rake.

    Plus, aren’t they taxed on profits rather than gross revenues? You’re leaving out the expenses of running servers, paying employees, and (probably more than anything), a bloody lot of money to marketing.

    So since you’re not usually wrong, what am *I* missing?

    • Russ says:

      The DOJ/USAO said that the amount of player deposits is $300 million worldwide; the $440 million is the amount of dividends/profit sharing taken by the 19 owners. I’m assuming the DOJ’s calculations are accurate, and began with the $440 million figure. Without looking at their books, it’s impossible to note what really happened.

      I am certain, though, that if Tiltware LLC was used as the vehicle to pay the dividends (this is implied in the amended complaint) that the 7% withholding to the FTB definitely applies for all non-Californians. (Chris Ferguson and any other California residents would owe more than that on their California tax returns.)

      You are correct that the taxes (except California withholding) is on profits. Given that no tax charges were filed concurrent with any of the DOJ’s charges, I am fairly certain that the individuals involved have been paying their taxes.

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