JEFFERSON CITY — A politically connected company that has flooded Missouri with unregulated slot machines is suing the state, saying its devices do not qualify as illegal gambling.
Torch Electronics, a Wildwood firm, and Warrenton Oil, which offers Torch games at its gas stations, are asking a Cole County judge to issue an order stopping the Missouri Highway Patrol from seizing machines as part of a crackdown on illegal gambling.
“The Highway Patrol has engaged in a long running campaign of harassment of stores, like Warrenton Oil’s stores, that house Torch amusement devices,” the lawsuit notes.
The suit was filed Feb. 5, three days after the Highway Patrol seized three machines from a St. Clair location owned by Warrenton Oil.
In addition, the lawsuit said state and local police “have intimidated and harassed convenience stores in Linn, Crawford, Barry, Vernon, Camden, Henry and Webster counties that license space for the Torch amusement devices.”
The lawsuit also said Torch amusement devices were seized from Warrenton Oil convenience stores in Franklin County and from other convenience stores in Henry and Linn counties.
The company’s action was met with skepticism in the Missouri Senate, which is debating legislation designed to shut down the proliferation of unregulated slot machines in the state.
Senate President Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, called the lawsuit “ironic” coming from a company that is pushing a product considered to be illegal by many, including a Platte County judge.
“They are flat illegal,” Schatz said.
Torch, which has hired a high-profile lobbying firm and has contributed tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money to Gov. Mike Parson and other state politicians, has argued that its machines are for amusement purposes, even though players can win money from them.
“These devices allow users to play games that are within their control and are not for gambling,” the lawsuit notes.
Torch says the seizure of the machines is causing “irreparable injury” to its business.
During brief comments on the Senate floor Wednesday, Schatz scoffed at the lawsuit, saying the machines are siphoning money from education programs and veterans because players are not going to the state’s casinos, where profits are taxed and distributed to schools.
His legislation calls for businesses caught with the machines to lose their liquor and lottery licenses.
The legislation also would bar guilty establishments from participating in any future expansion of legal gambling.
The push has the backing of the state’s casinos, which are concerned about a loss of market share from people who chose to spend their money at gas station gambling machines instead of traveling to one of the regulated casinos.
It also has the support of the Missouri Lottery, where officials estimate illegal gambling costs education from $5 million to $20 million per year.