JEFFERSON CITY — A campaign committee raising money for Gov. Mike Parson has received at least $20,000 in contributions from a politically connected company operating gaming machines deemed illegal by state gambling regulators.
Uniting Missouri, a political action committee established last year to help the Republican governor win a full term in 2020, accepted two checks worth $10,000 each from Torch Electronics, which is managed by Steve Miltenberger of Wildwood.
Torch has retained the lobbying services of former Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley and has contributed more than $58,000 to campaign committees connected with Tilley’s sister, Kristal Brickhaus, his father, Everett, and brother, Jason.
Records show another lobbyist representing the company is former state Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, who also is being paid by Uniting Missouri for campaign consulting work.
And, the company also has hired high-profile Republican consultant Gregg Keller as its spokesman.
Miltenberger, who previously worked for video gambling companies in Illinois, where they have been taxed and regulated since 2012, has placed video terminals in businesses across Missouri over the past year.
The terminals work like slot machines. A player inserts money, selects a game and decides how much to wager. Players who win money can cash out and get paid by the store cashier.
In response to their spread, the Missouri Gaming Commission earlier this month deemed the types of machines being distributed by Torch as “gambling devices,” which are prohibited outside of licensed casinos.
Torch disagrees, saying its machines “fall outside the definition of a ‘gambling device’ under Missouri law and are entirely legal.”
“We’re confident that as we continue to discuss our no-chance game machines with policy makers they’ll come to agree with scores of local prosecutors and law enforcement officials that our No-Chance Game Machines do not violate Missouri law,” Keller said in a response to a series of questions by the Post-Dispatch.
Keller did not provide answers to some questions, including how many machines are currently in operation and whether the company supports legislative proposals to begin a state-regulated, Illinois-style expansion of video gaming in bars, truck stops and fraternal organizations.
As governor, Parson already oversees state agencies that police illegal gambling and would have a voice in any legislative fix to the issue, as well as oversight if video poker is legalized and taxed.
John Hancock, the former head of the Missouri Republican Party who runs Uniting Missouri, said he was unfamiliar with Torch and Miltenberger.
“They’ve never asked me to do anything on their behalf,” Hancock said. “The PAC is certainly not going to provide any special treatment for them. They are donors like all our other donors.”
Torch’s push to get machines into retail establishments has raised eyebrows across the state. The Missouri Lottery is concerned the machines are cutting into its sales. Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd has taken a supplier to court in a case that could determine whether the rest of the state can shut down the terminals.
Senate President Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, is pushing for legislation that would prohibit the machines and strip businesses of their liquor licenses if the terminals are present.
House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, earlier formed a special committee to meet over the summer and fall to look into the issue of unregulated gambling.
The Missouri Gaming Commission says it can only police establishments that have bingo licenses.
And the Missouri Department of Public Safety, which oversees liquor licenses, says it cannot crack down on the machines because of a court ruling in 2000 that found the agency has no authority to seize gambling devices.
Missouri lawmakers failed during their most recent session to find a way to ban or regulate video poker as lobbyists for Missouri casinos, gas stations, professional sports teams and video poker machine manufacturers clashed over the issue.
At its core, the fight is about how to divvy up the money generated by legalized gambling. In Illinois, state revenue from video gambling has topped $300 million. But it has cannibalized revenue from casinos, which want to offset those potential losses by legalizing sports betting.
Among the lobbyists in the middle of the high-stakes fight is Tilley, who has long had a relationship with Parson.
Over the past year, Tilley’s Missouri Majority PAC has given Uniting Missouri $40,000. Tilley also has served as a co-host of a fundraiser benefiting Parson.
Dieckhaus, who served in the Missouri House from 2009 to 2013 representing a Washington-area district, works for a number of GOP candidates. He also is a consultant for the House Republican Campaign Committee.
Hancock said the committee also has accepted $10,000 from Penn National Gaming, the company that owns Hollywood Casino in Maryland Heights, signaling that he is not playing favorites in the debate over gambling expansion in Missouri.
Penn National’s contribution came in February.