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New lawsuit targets ‘rogue’ video gambling company operating in Missouri

New lawsuit targets ‘rogue’ video gambling company operating in Missouri

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Digital Slot Machines

Dave McCall of St. Louis plays a digital slot machine game in South Public Market on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. An estimated 52 such machines, made by Torch Electronics, are in gas stations, restaurants and small grocery stores across the city. Photo by Troy Stolt, tstolt@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — After watching the unchecked spread of potentially illegal video gambling terminals eat into his bottom line, the owner of a Missouri coin-operated game company has taken one of the biggest players in the industry to court.

In a civil suit filed in Crawford County, Jim Turntine, owner of TNT Amusements of Sullivan, is asking a judge to shut down slot machines placed in a truck stop along Interstate 44 in Cuba.

The machines are owned by Torch Electronics, a Wildwood company that has contributed $20,000 to Gov. Mike Parson’s election effort and has retained the services of high-powered lobbyists and political consultants. The truck stop is owned by Midwest Petroleum, which has given $2,600 to Parson’s election bid as well as $10,000 to Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s effort.

“As a direct result of Torch’s illegal gambling machines replacing TNT’s legal coin-operated amusement machines at the Midwest Travel Plaza, TNT has been damaged in that its revenues at that facility have been drastically reduced — to almost zero,” the lawsuit says.

The legal action opens a new front in a sometimes muddled effort to address the rapid rollout of slot machines across the Show Me State. At least two pieces of legislation have been filed in recent days aimed at stopping Torch and other companies. Both could be debated when the Legislature convenes in January.

The Missouri Gaming Commission, which regulates legal gambling in the state’s 13 casinos, has said machines like the ones owned by Torch are illegal.

But local prosecutors have been reluctant to step into the fray. A Post-Dispatch survey found many are awaiting the outcome of a criminal case involving video gambling machines in Platte County.

“We’re taking a wait-and-see approach in hopes that we can get a little more guidance,” said Tim Lohmar, St. Charles County prosecutor. “Because at this point prosecuting these cases would be very difficult.”

Machines owned by Torch and others give players the option of viewing the outcome of a wager before placing a bet.

“My view of the present state of the law is that by being able to have a predetermined outcome, that eliminates the chance aspect that would otherwise make these games illegal,” said Lohmar, who is also the president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

The Platte County prosecutor sees it differently.

“We believe these sorts of machines are illegal under Missouri law,” Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd said earlier this year.

Among the concerns voiced by opponents of the machines are whether they are draining revenue from the Missouri Lottery and the state’s casinos, both of which contribute to education costs.

There also are concerns about whether minors are playing the games.

Torch, which has placed at least 50 terminals within the city limits of St. Louis, argues it is doing nothing wrong.

“Torch machines operate statewide to the benefit of dozens of family-owned small businesses and charitable organizations in the state. We will fight all big-government crony capitalist attempts to use state power rather than free market competition to pick winners and losers,” said Torch spokesman Gregg Keller, a political consultant who is heading up President Donald Trump’s reelection effort in Missouri.

The TNT lawsuit argues that slot machines are only allowed in casinos. By placing them in truck stops, gas stations and convenience stores, it is breaking state law. Turntine’s attorney, Elkin Kistner of Clayton, called Torch a “rogue operator.”

“Jim is a clean operator and this isn’t fair play,” Kistner said. “To his credit, Jim and his company have said enough is enough.”

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