An audacious Internet gambling mogul long sought by authorities has been indicted in Baltimore, capping an investigation that spanned nearly a decade and several countries and comes amid a recent crackdown on the popular poker and gambling sites.
Canadian native and Bodog.com founder Calvin Ayre, 50, and three others were charged by a federal grand jury with conducting an illegal sports gambling site and conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to a federal indictment unsealed Tuesday.
Ayre's Bodog brand has became one of the biggest in the world of online sports betting and casino games and propelled him to billionaire status. The indictment alleges that Bodog and its conspirators moved at least $100 million from offshore accounts in Switzerland, England, Malta and Canada to bettors in Maryland and elsewhere, while paying $42 million for advertising to attract U.S. gamblers.
Internal Revenue Service investigators in Maryland have been examining Bodog.com since 2003, according to court documents, with immigration and customs officials joining a formal investigation in 2006.
Bodog.com's site — which the company abandoned last year after other popular gambling domains were shut down in the United States — on Tuesday featured the emblems of the U.S. Department of Justice and Homeland Security Investigations.
"No matter where a corporation is based, they can't run sports betting in Maryland," Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said in an interview. "It's easy for companies to comply with this law by not offering gambling services in places where that service is not legal. The fact that they're located offshore is irrelevant."
But industry and gambling experts say operators of such sites are more likely to shift tactics than shut down. Ayre, for one, contends that online gambling is legal under international law.
Ayre, whose parents were grain and pig farmers in Saskatchewan, appeared on the cover of Forbes magazine's annual ranking of the world's billionaires in 2006 in an article titled "Catch Me If You Can" — a reference to his position in the cross hairs of investigators. He also was featured in People magazine's "hottest bachelor" list.
An outsized personality whose website describes him as an "industry pioneer, megalomaniac and adrenaline junkie," Ayre has been living in exile in recent years. According to news reports, he has taken care not to keep any assets in the U.S. He was not in custody after the indictment.
Ayre released a statement Tuesday through his website denouncing the charges as a media stunt.
"I see this as abuse of the U.S. criminal justice system for the commercial gain of large U.S. corporations," Ayre said in an article posted to calvinayre.com. "It is clear that the online gaming industry is legal under international law and in the case of these documents, is it [sic] also clear that the rule of law was not allowed to slow down a rush to try to win the war of public opinion.
"We will all look at this and discuss the future with our advisers, but it will not stop my many business interests globally that are unrelated to anything in the U.S.," he said.
Though online gambling continues to be a booming, multibillion-dollar industry, transactions related to online gambling are illegal under the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. Supporters say poker is an American pastime that remains easily accessible for players regardless of such restrictions and should be allowed and regulated in the United States.
Operators of online betting sites and payment processors have previously faced federal charges in Maryland, and Ayre derisively called the charges against him "another notch in the belt" for federal prosecutors here.
Last May, in a crackdown dubbed "Blue Monday" by players, federal authorities based in Maryland shut down 10 poker sites, including Beted.com. In that case, federal investigators set up a phony business called Linwood Payment Solutions and handled $33 million in transactions from Internet gamblers.
That followed the so-called "Black Friday" indictments brought by the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan in April that rocked the online betting world when it shut down the three most popular online poker sites: Fulltiltpoker.com, Truepoker.com and Absolutepoker.com. The owners of those sites are fighting the charges.
The day after the May indictments were unsealed, Bodog.com changed to a European domain name — Bodog.eu — in an apparent attempt to avoid a crackdown by U.S. authorities. Then, in the fall, Bodog.com was handed over to a site called bolvada.lv.
Ayre has said that he retired and transferred the brand to the Morris Mohawk Gaming Group, which is located near Montreal, Forbes.com reported.
Chris Costigan, publisher of Gambling911.com, said charges against Ayre have been expected for some time. "They were always targeting Bodog, it seemed, and most of the industry realized something was going to happen, they just didn't know when," Costigan said in an interview.
Feds in Md. indict founder of major online gambling site
Bodog founder Calvin Ayre, in a photo from Wikipedia