Neteller to pay up as feds ease up

Hippie founders not quite off the hook

In more good news for the online gambling industry, Neteller today announced that it has reached an agreement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to return funds belonging to American players that had been frozen at the DOJ's request .

Neteller, the online ewallet company that at one time provided payment processing services for over 85 per cent of the online gambling industry, has been in legal limbo since the DOJ arrested two former executives on conpiracy and money laundering charges back in January. Neteller became the primary funding source for the online companies that continued to service the American market after the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) drove the American credit card industry out of the market.

According to draconian American asset forfeiture laws, under which authorities can quickly seize property suspected of use in criminal activity and make it almost impossible for the owner to get it back, the feds could well have just kept the $55m. However, the move to return the money, combined with the ongoing delay in formally charging the two with anything, seems to indicate that the DOJ might be rethinking its hardline approach to the online gambling industry.

The press release notes that Neteller has signed agreements with the DOJ and the forensic auditing group Navigant. The agreement provides a 75-day timeline under which Neteller will work out a plan to return funds in an orderly manner to its one-time US customers. That's great news for Neteller's customers, but the agreement also could well be calculated to provide the DOJ with a very detailed understanding of the payment processing industry as whole, a kind of window onto a world that the DOJ considers of paramount importance in this post-9/11 society.

The arrests of neteller founders John Lefevbre and Stephen Lawrence seem to be turning into a fishing expedition, in line with the subpoenas handed out not long afterward to various European financial institutions a few weeks back. Although a big bust is usually how a US Attorney gets ahead in his or her career - oh, the lights and cameras at those big press conferences! - the bust needs to be followed by an actual conviction.

In its whirlwind attack on the international internet gambling business, the DOJ might finally have bitten off more than it can chew.®

Burke Hansen, attorney at large, heads a San Francisco law office

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