News Briefs

‘Gray market’ gaming company pumps $250K into PACs tied to Missouri lobbyist

By: - May 25, 2022 8:00 am

Two "no-chance" gambling machines await customers in a Columbia convenience store (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).

​​A company accused of operating illegal gambling machines in Missouri made six $40,000 donations this week to a constellation of political action committees run by its lobbyist.

Wildwood-based Torch Electronics cut the checks Monday to MO Majority PAC, Missouri Growth PAC, Missouri C PAC, Missouri Senior PAC, Missouri AG PAC and Conservative Leaders of Missouri.

Each of the PACs is connected to Steve Tilley, a former House speaker who serves as Torch’s lobbyist.

The donations were the company’s first since last year, when it divvied up $230,000 worth of donations to Tilley’s PACs.

It’s not unusual for lobbying firms in Jefferson City to set up a single PAC to allow clients to donate. And some groups deploy multiple political action committees, such as how the Missouri Bank Association has statewide and regional PACs or labor unions have state and local affiliates.

But by deploying six PACs, critics argue Tilley is exploiting a loophole that could allow his clients to skirt the cap on contributions to candidates. Companies can donate any amount to Tilley’s six PACs, which can then each donate the maximum amount to a candidate.

Under federal law, when two or more committees are affiliated, they share a single limit on the contributions they make to candidates and other political committees. Missouri does not have a similar law in place.

A spokeswoman for Tilley’s lobbying firm declined comment.

Torch owns games that operate like slot machines in locations around the state.

The Missouri Gaming Commission has deemed them gambling devices, which are prohibited outside of licensed casinos, and the state highway patrol considers them illegal. Several local prosecutors are also pursuing criminal charges against the companies that own and house the machines.

Legislative efforts to outlaw Torch’s machines have failed to gain traction in recent years, with Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz recently complaining that the failure is in part due to heavy lobbying by Torch.

Last year, Torch and Warrenton Oil Company, operator of FastLane Convenience stores, filed a lawsuit against the Missouri State Highway Patrol and other state agencies, claiming to be victims of a “campaign of harassment and intimidation.” Torch also sued Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson in order to quash an investigative subpoena directed at the company.

Torch has argued, both in its lawsuit and in legislative hearings, that their machines are not gambling devices. Since they reveal the outcome of the wager before a player moves forward, they are not a game of chance, the company contends, and therefore not illegal.

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Jason Hancock
Jason Hancock

Jason Hancock has spent two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, with most of that time focused on the Missouri statehouse as a reporter for The Kansas City Star. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he helped launch The Missouri Independent in October 2020.