Thursday, July 31, 2008
Feds Hound Bodog
The U.S. government recently seized $24 million from bank accounts linked to Bodog, the giant, illegal-under-U.S.-law Internet gaming operation founded by Canadian tycoon Calvin Ayre.
Federal filings make very clear that a serious criminal investigation of the Bodog enterprise is ongoing. At a minimum, word of the seizures is likely to rattle the confidence of U.S.-based online gamblers that they will receive their winnings, not only from Bodog but from the industry's other remaining participants.
Detailed in court filings in a Baltimore federal court, the Bodog-related seizures from such well-known institutions as Wachovia, Bank of America, SunTrust Banks and Regions Bank, a unit of Regions Financial, increase the possibility of criminal action against Ayre himself. There already has been published speculation in his native Canada that he is under secret indictment somewhere in the U.S.
The U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore, which launched the two lawsuits to take the $24 million, did not respond to a request for comment.
The flamboyant Ayre--media reports often call him a "playboy"--is now believed to be in Antigua and Barbuda, a country in the eastern Caribbean. He has denied being on the lam. A request on Wednesday for comment from Ayre, sent through the Web site of his Antigua-based Calvin Ayre Foundation, was not immediately returned. Nor were call and e-mail messages sent to public relations contacts listed on Bodog's Web site.
In early 2006 Ayre rocketed to international prominence--and the cover of Forbes magazine' annual issue on the world's billionaires--for his stewardship from Costa Rica of Bodog Entertainment Group and his open flouting of authorities in the U.S., his major market. The story headline: "Catch Me If You Can." The operation was said at the time to be handling $7.3 billion yearly in poker, casino and sports event wagers.
But since then, Ayre has been the subject of law-enforcement raids abroad and growing regulatory scrutiny, especially in the U.S. In late 2006 President Bush signed a law strengthening the prohibition on online gambling. Ayre fell off the Forbes worldwide billionaires list after just one year, amid a decline in his industry's fortunes.
In overall actions against the industry, federal prosecutors in New York have charged executives of Neteller with illegally processing online gaming transactions. This summer, Canada's ESI Entertainment Systems, an Internet payment business, entered into a "deferred prosecution agreement" with the same prosecutors. The company admitted to criminal wrongdoing and agreed to disgorge $9.1 million in criminal proceeds for its role in processing $2 billion in Internet gambling payments for hundreds of thousands of U.S. customers. Criminal cases have been started against various online gambling shops.
Ayre has been trying to put legal distance between himself and the operation he founded in the 1990s. For years its business was run through Internet servers belonging to Mohawk Internet Technologies, located on the Kahnawake Reserve Indian reservation in Quebec, Canada. In September 2007 Bodog said its North American operations would be licensed to Morris Mohawk Group, also located on the reservation and run by tribal chief Alwyn Morris.
Three months ago, Ayre, now 47, said he had transferred ownership of Bodog itself to Morris Mohawk Group. "It's true; I'm packing it in," Ayre wrote on a Web site.
Court filings in Maryland say that in January and February a total of $14.2 million was seized from accounts in the name of JBL Services and Transaction Solutions at Wachovia, Regions Bank, Bank of America and Sun Trust Bank. In July, filings say, another $9.9 million was found in eight accounts at Nevada State Bank, a unit of Zion Bancorporation, in the name of Zaftig Instantly Processed Payments, doing business as ZipPayments.com. The companies are described as helping to facilitate parts of the Bodog operation.
The court papers detail an elaborate international structure put together to allow Bodog to collect money and write checks to winning gamblers in the U.S. One affidavit by Randall S. Carrow, a special agent with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigation Division, said that $248 million involving entities linked to Bodog was processed through Wachovia Bank, from which $11 million of the $24 million was seized.
In a statement to Forbes, Wachovia said the bank cooperated with law enforcement, doesn't knowingly allow Internet gaming operations to open accounts, and the funds ending up at the bank were in accounts of a third-party credit card servicer. The statement also hinted that various accounts might have been kept open at the request of investigators to aid their efforts.
According to Carrow's detailed sworn statements, the IRS's Criminal Investigation Division started looking at Bodog in 2003 and opened a formal probe in 2006. The extensive sleuthing has involved close examination of public and bank records, the enlisting of unnamed cooperating witnesses and informants, and undercover efforts to make bets on football and collect winnings.
Ayre, says Carrow's statement, is president of Middleton Financial, a Nevada corporation described as a key cog in the U.S. Bodog machinery, as well as Stratham Finance, said to be based in Malta. Other entities linked to Ayre in the court filings are Gateway Financial Services, EBanx Ltd., Gregor Financial Ltd. and Calvtek Industries. The filings list dozens of businesses involved in processing Bodog transactions.
The ongoing federal pressure to disrupt Bodog's financial transactions may be bearing fruit. Carrow's affidavits say several checks issued from Bodog to its undercover gambler bounced.
A break in the inquiry came in May, one of Carrow's affidavits says, when an undercover operative for "another state's gambling commission" received a check that didn't bounce from an account at Nevada State Bank, which is headquartered in Las Vegas. That led to the $9.9 million seizure this month. The bank had no immediate comment.
Carrow's affidavits were filed in connection with the U.S.'s successful efforts to get a federal judge to authorize the seizures. But to keep the money permanently, federal prosecutors must file a civil lawsuit and allow a challenge by anyone with a claimed interest. No one fought the $14.2 million seizure, and it was ordered forfeited to the feds. The lawsuit over the $9.9 million--its official name is United States of America v. $9,869,283.05--was just filed.
Even before the advent of Bodog, Ayre carried considerable baggage. Close family members were convicted of drug trafficking. (Ayer himself was never charged.) In 1996 Ayre was banned for 20 years from the British Columbia securities industry for stock market offenses. By that time, he was already moving into online gaming.
"One of the things that drives me is the excitement that I could fail," he told Forbes in 2006. "What better buzz can you get?"
All Content Copyright Iggy 2003-2007
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