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The Ghost Hand

Maryland law enforcers aim to take the pot by secretly sitting at the online gambling table

Illustrations By David Plunkert

By Van Smith | Posted 3/24/2010

On Dec. 21, 2006, someone in Maryland opened an account with bodog.com, an online gaming site whose customers bet on sports and horse-racing and play poker and casino games on their computers. The same day, that same someone placed two online bets on football games with Bodog. Over the course of 2007, after more wagering, the online gambler requested and received two payout checks from Bodog: one for $1,500 and another for $700.

Mundane as they may seem, the Maryland gambler's wagers and payouts have had major repercussions in the online-gambling world. That's because, starting in 2008, the details of that person's online betting activities were included in meticulous affidavits supporting warrants to seize the contents of bank accounts said to be tied to illegal gambling. The Maryland gambler was actually a special agent working undercover for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Criminal Investigation Division.

Under U.S. law, facilitating transactions tied to online gambling is illegal. Yet, due to the immense popularity among Americans of wagering over the internet, the overseas companies that provide this kind of entertainment continue to seek ways to do business with U.S. customers. In order to pay out winnings to gamblers in this country, they have to hire U.S. companies willing to operate as payment processors--middle-men who take foreign casino companies' money and disburse it to players when they want to cash out their online gambling accounts. These payment processors are taking a risk that U.S. law enforcement will detect the transactions and seize the money while it's sitting in the payment processors' accounts--which is exactly what federal investigators in Maryland, and elsewhere, have been doing--but due to the lucrative nature of the business, both the payment processors and the online-casino companies have been willing to take that gamble.

In the post-Sept. 11 world, the U.S. government has developed a heightened interest in augmenting its ability to track the ways and means of global money-moving. Though the motivation is to protect the world from terrorists by interrupting their finances, this trend also means that financial crimes of all kinds--including the movement of online gambling money into the United States--face a greater risk of detection. In the world of internet wagering, whenever money is sitting in a U.S. bank account, it is exposed to possible seizure by the authorities. And, as investigators' successes mount, it's clear they are getting better at it.

IRS criminal investigators in Maryland "opened a formal investigation of Bodog in 2006," court records state, after having "conducted interviews regarding Bodog.com, Calvin Ayre, and Bodog's operations in approximately 2003." Ayre, a Canadian who's been living in exile for several years now, is the founder of Bodog, which is based in Antigua and has operations in Costa Rica.

Bodog, a 15-year-old company which claims to be the world's pre-eminent online gambling site and whose operations span the globe, is not the first to be targeted by American law enforcement's crackdown on internet gambling. That honor goes to Jay Cohen, who in 1998 was indicted in New York along with numerous other defendants for violating the federal Wire Wager Act in running the Antigua-based World Sports Exchange. Cohen fought the charges, saying federal laws prohibiting wire transfers of gambling proceeds do not apply to the internet. He lost and was sentenced to 21 months in prison. Since then, the feds have continued to focus on an industry that, in effect, presents opportunities for people to gamble anywhere and anytime, despite the laws of any particular country or state.

"If you're in Antigua running a casino, that's fine," says Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. "But if you're actually operating a casino in someone's bedroom in Montgomery County over the internet, that's illegal." Thus, any proceeds that can be traced to gambling activity that takes place in Maryland--whether it's actual betting over the internet, or just the arrival of checks in the mailboxes of Maryland gamblers cashing out their online-gambling accounts--could end up seized by Maryland authorities.

Since early 2008, according to federal court records, the ongoing federal investigation of online gambling based in Maryland--which, in addition to the IRS, also involves members of a Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE) task force--has brought at least $29,206,594.62 in alleged gambling proceeds into federal coffers. The latest warrant in the investigation was signed by U.S. magistrate judge Paul Grimm in early February, and it targeted the contents of a Mercantile Bank account in Tampa, Fla. The account, held in the name of a company called Direct Channel LLC, yielded $860,335.90 on March 5. Direct Channel, like the other companies included in the Maryland internet-gambling seizures, allegedly provided payment-processing services in the U.S. for gambling web sites based in other countries. Though the Maryland investigation initially appeared to focus on payment processors for Bodog, such as Direct Channel, it has since broadened to include funds held by companies serving another gambling site, goldencasino.com, which is also based in Antigua.

Any U.S. bank account used by a payment processor working with online casinos could be targeted by investigators, potentially wiping out millions of dollars when a seizure warrant arrives at the bank. But due to the magnitude of online gambling in the United States--half of the $16 billion per year that internet gambling is estimated to generate is believed to originate in the United States--the risk may be worth it. Though federal investigators in Maryland and elsewhere, including New York, Missouri, and Florida, go for the money, there's so much in play at any given moment that what they seize is only a small portion of money flow.

So far, after several years of effort, Maryland law enforcers have seized nearly $30 million in suspected online-gambling proceeds. That's equal to less than one half of one percent of the $8 billion that U.S. online gamblers are estimated to spend each year. But it's a start. And as the effort builds and grows more sophisticated and nimble with experience, the potential is as vast as the American online-gambling economy itself.

"There are very big numbers in internet gambling," say Rosenstein, acknowledging the sizeable cut the government could get through seizing and forfeiting assets, which are funneled into law-enforcement budgets to support the efforts of the agencies that seized them. Asked if seizures, in the long run, could undermine gambling web sites' ability to pay out to U.S. customers, he says: "That's a possibility, and it's certainly a risk for customers. And it's a pretty effective deterrent, since customers have no remedy if the gambling operator fails to pay. They won't be able to go into court and enforce that. It's an illegal contract."

Seizing and forfeiting criminally derived assets, including those from online gambling, has been made a priority by Rosenstein's office. Last year, he hired the nation's top asset-forfeiture prosecutor--Stefan Cassella, who literally wrote the book on the subject, a 950-page tome entitled Asset Forfeiture Law in the United States--to lead the effort. Among Cassella's achievements is the largest forfeiture in U.S. history: $1.2 billion from the Bank of Credit and Commerce International in the 1990s. Given the size of the online-gambling industry's assets, Cassella may have an opportunity to break his own record while working in Maryland.

Law-enforcement efforts to interrupt internet-gambling money flowing in and out of the United States were ramped up after the 2006 passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which was signed by President George W. Bush in October that year. Before that law was passed, the federal Wire Act, which dates back to 1961, already prohibited the transfer of gambling proceeds via wire communications. That law had been used to go after internet gambling prior to the UIGEA's passage. But unlike the Wire Act, the UIGEA specifically outlaws internet-gambling transactions and requires financial operators, such as banks and payment processors, to determine which transactions are tied to online gambling and report them to regulators.

The banking industry, concerned that UIGEA requirements would be difficult to enforce and would force bankers to become anti-gambling police, persuaded the Obama administration to postpone the law, scheduled for implementation in December 2009, for six months. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), meanwhile, is currently trying to usher through legislation that would repeal the UIGEA and instead set up a regulate-and-tax scheme for the industry, arguing that online gambling is a liberty--and a potentially large source of public revenues--that the government should not prohibit.

But Rosenstein contends that going after the illegal profits gained from the U.S. market for internet gambling is a matter of fairness. "What Americans find particularly galling," he says, "is when something is criminalized, honest people don't engage in the activity, but criminals do, so they get excess profits because their only competition is from other criminals."

Those seeking to legitimize aspects of online gambling, though, have other thoughts on the matter. Last year, in trying to persuade a federal judge to release funds seized from a payment processor allegedly tied to online gambling, lawyers for the Poker Players Alliance (PPA), a Washington, D.C.-based interest group, argued that online poker is a game of skill, not of chance, and thus is not illegal gambling. They also contended that the UIGEA establishes criminal culpability for "persons who operate illegal gambling sites, rather than those who process payment transactions," and that restricted transactions under the UIGEA do not include funds going to a gambler because a gambler is "not engaged in the business of betting or wagering."

The lawyers for the PPA (whose motto is "Poker is not a crime: Join the fight.") did not prevail. But their efforts--and the well-heeled existence of the PPA, which has its own lobbying arm, PokerPAC, and whose board is chaired by former U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-New York)--indicates that powerful forces in American society don't like the online-gambling crackdown. Recent public-opinion polling, though, indicates the prohibition of online gambling is popular; two-thirds of those responding to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released on March 11 say they do not favor legalizing it.

Though online gambling is legal in many parts of the globe, enjoyed by many Americans, and accepted in many cultures--to the point that online-gambling companies' stocks often are publicly traded in other nations--its continued prohibition in the United States may be explained by the longtime association of the gambling industry with unseemly characters making obscene profits.

Recent cases against internet gambling operations, for instance, give a sense of the profit potential the business presents and sometimes allege organized-crime ties. In New York in October 2009, the operators of Panama-based betonline.com were charged with illegal online gambling; authorities claimed the group made $587 million in 28 months and was linked to the Gambino and Genovese crime families. In a 2006 Missouri case against the longtime gambling figures who ran Costa Rica-based betonsports.com, the indictment states that the company's promotional materials boasted "100,000 active players, who placed 33 million wagers, worth over $1.6 billion" in 2003, before the company went public on the London stock exchange. In February, Missouri authorities indicted the operators of Costa Rica-based Elite Sports, which ran the web sites best24b.com and best24b.net, and among the defendants were members of the Kansas City's storied Cammisano crime family.

In addition, federal authorities in New York have charged two men--Anurag Dikshit in 2008 and Douglas Rennick in 2009--with illegally running online-gambling ventures. Dikshit, who was born in India and is one of the youngest billionaires in the world thanks to the success of his online-gambling business, is co-founder of the Gibraltar company that operated partypoker.com; charges against him include the forfeiture of $300 million in gambling revenues. Rennick, a Canadian, ran a series of payment-processing companies that allegedly served the internet-gambling industry, and the government is seeking to forfeit more than a half billion dollars of the proceeds from his financial dealings.

Another alleged payment processor was charged in Florida in February, when a bank alerted federal authorities that customers were trying to cash large checks they said were the payouts from online-gambling winnings. Michael Olaf Schuett, a German man living in Naples, Fla., had set up hundreds of companies and had dozens of bank accounts that were allegedly used to operate the scheme since 2007. The complaint against him says that he transferred online-gambling payments to about 23,000 people, mostly in the United States, and that the total amount of money involved was $70 million.

In what may have been the first federal gambling case involving the internet in Maryland, IRS investigators and Montgomery County police teamed up to bust a ring that, in 2003 and 2004, handled action from Maryland customers on behalf of a Dominican company called World Wide Wagering, which runs the web site wager.dm. The conspiracy case, which ended with the convictions of seven men from Montgomery County, Baltimore, and Florida, followed the money flow to and from bettors and the defendants. The case included the cashing of more than $150,000 worth of checks at University Liquors in Hyattsville.

Just as IRS agents in Maryland were cracking the World Wide Wagering case, they started looking into Bodog. But it wasn't until December 2006, shortly after the UIGEA was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush, that the Bodog investigation got serious--it began with an investigator logging onto the web site, posing as a customer, and starting to gamble.

Once the investigator started receiving payout checks in 2007, the money trail could be tracked. In the meantime, the investigation gained a cooperating witness from inside the internet-gambling industry, who corroborated facts about Bodog's operations, including the contention that "Bodog takes in from $250,000 to millions per day on sports bookmaking alone," court records show. An informant also helped out by corroborating facts based on experience using Bodog's site to gamble in Florida. The informant was able to explain the betting process to investigators; additional information was gleaned from investigators working online-gambling probes in other jurisdictions.

By 2008, sufficient cause had been established by Maryland IRS investigators to seize funds from the bank accounts of three payment-processing companies suspected of handling funds for Bodog: JBL Services and Transactions Solutions in Georgia, and a California company called ZAFTIG Instantly Processed Payments Corp., operating as ZipPayments.com.

On Jan. 18, 2008, U.S. District Court magistrate judge Beth Gesner signed a search-and-seizure warrant application for bank accounts in the name of JBL Services and Transactions Solutions; $14,200,195.73 was seized. On June 28, 2008, U.S. District Court magistrate judge Susan Gauvey signed another warrant application for ZipPayments.com bank accounts, which yielded another $9,869,283.05. By July 2008, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Maryland had filed forfeiture actions against both pots of money. The legal actions were based on lengthy affidavits written by IRS criminal investigator Randall Carrow.

In September 2008, the case against ZipPayments.com's money suddenly heated up. A claim for nearly $10 million was filed by ZipPayments.com and Edward Courdy, a California man who sought to have the money returned, saying it was lawfully his. Within days of filing his claim, Courdy was charged with money laundering, as was Michael Garone, a Georgia man connected to JBL Services and Transaction Solutions ("Bodog Internet Gambling Investigation Leads to Money-Laundering Charges," Mobtown Beat, Oct. 30, 2008). In February 2009, as a result of a forfeiture settlement negotiated by Courdy's attorney, Stanley Greenberg, and assistant U.S. attorney Richard Kay, the government returned $200,000 of the ZipPayments.com money to Courdy, and kept the rest.

Today, the status of the criminal cases against Courdy and Garone is unclear. Some time in the fall of 2009, a little over a year after they were filed, the online records of the cases against them disappeared from the federal court-records database system, known as Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER). Since Maryland's federal courts handle only electronically filed documents, PACER is the only repository of its records. The disappearance from PACER of Maryland criminal case numbers 08-454 (against Courdy) and 08-455 (against Garone), creates the illusion that they were never filed at all--though City Paper still has copies of the documents charging them, which bear Rosenstein's signature. Despite City Paper's requests for explanation, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Maryland has remained mum about what happened.

Courdy's lawyer, Greenberg, has consistently declined City Paper's request for comment about his client's troubles in Maryland. Efforts to contact Garone, and to identify his lawyer in the Maryland case, have been unsuccessful.

After the money seizures and criminal charges involving Courdy and Garone were filed, the online gambling investigation in Maryland appears to have shifted from the IRS to Immigration and Customs Enforcement--and the level of secrecy surrounding the investigation increased. Though numerous search-and-seizure warrants have been filed for the contents of bank accounts and an e-mail account associated with payment processors since last summer, nearly all of them were granted under seal, so probable cause for the seizures has not been revealed to the public.

Despite the secret nature of many of the seizure filings, certain information about them is available. Three ICE task force members in Maryland--Maryland State Police trooper Robert J. Mignona, ICE special agent M. Lisa Ward, and Anne Arundel County Police detective Richard S. Gunn--and one ICE special agent in Louisiana, Augusta B. Ferenec, filed the warrant applications. The companies whose bank accounts have been seized--HMD, Forshay Enterprises, and Electracash in California; Atrium Financial Group (AFG) in Delaware; and Direct Channel in Florida--are in the payment-processing business. The amounts seized so far from these companies' bank accounts add up to $5,137,115.84. And, in the case of Electracash--a business that has past associations with Courdy--warrants have been issued not only to seize the contents of bank accounts, but of an e-mail account the company has with Intermedia, a New York City communications company. (The Electracash e-mail warrant, unlike the bank-account seizures, so far has yielded nothing, court records show.)

One of the unsealed search-warrant affidavits--the one filed early this year against Direct Channel's bank account in Florida--was written by Ward, but draws directly from the IRS affidavit in the Courdy and Garone seizures, and thus sheds no new light on the investigation's details. The other unsealed warrant, against Atrium Financial Group and written by Ferenec, shows that ICE's financial-investigations group in New Orleans, La., along with the Louisiana State Police, are in on the Maryland probe ("GoldenCasino.com's Payment Processor Targeted in Latest OnLine Gambling Seizures in Maryland," The News Hole, Oct. 28, 2009).

The Louisiana end of the Maryland investigation began on July 14, 2008, when Louisiana State Police officers opened a gambling account with goldencasino.com. They did not immediately succeed, because the bank they were using to deposit $100 into the gambling account apparently blocked the transaction. On the second try, though, they succeeded. They then requested a payout.

The first payout check bounced, but the second one, from AFG, cleared, and the investigators, using information they gleaned from their transactions, used their investigative powers to start on up the money trail. They discovered funds moving between Canadian companies' bank accounts in Canada and Cyprus and on to AFG bank accounts in the United States, which then issued checks to U.S. residents, including in Maryland. The transactions they tracked involved millions of dollars zipping across the globe.

"Because of enhanced monitoring of financial transactions since Sept. 11, we have a much better handle on the movement of funds," Rosenstein says about the ability of investigators to dig into the online-gambling industry. In fact, the affidavits of investigators Carrow and Ferenec indicate that initiating a successful seizure of funds from payment processors doesn't require particularly sophisticated investigative techniques. The trick, it seems, is trying to pinpoint where the money will be at any given moment, hoping to gain court orders to freeze it, and seize it before it shifts yet again.

Rosenstein points out another challenge investigators face in trying to seize online gambling funds: While it's relatively easy to go after funds in U.S. accounts, going after offshore accounts--where the big money is, since that's where the online gaming companies operate--is tricky.

"It's similar to the challenges we face with child pornography, which is often stored overseas and transported to the United States over the internet," Rosenstein says. "The degree of international cooperation with regard to child pornography is far greater than with offshore gambling, though. But we can readily intercept the money flowing through financial institutions that we have jurisdiction over."

Rosenstein says online gambling can be prosecuted anywhere that customers are located, and that the public should expect to see more enforcement efforts taking place in more jurisdictions. He says that criminal activity is increasingly becoming more internet-based, and that investigative agencies are becoming more focused on financial crimes. They're also becoming more sophisticated when it comes to following the money.

"Anything that illegally generates large amounts of money is a concern on many levels," Rosenstein says. "People engaged in such conduct may be committing other crimes. They may not be paying taxes, and they may be investing in other illegal activities."

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