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JEFFERSON CITY — The same clout-heavy company installing unregulated and potentially illegal gambling terminals across Missouri has placed an estimated 52 machines within the borders of St. Louis.

According to a review by the Post-Dispatch, St. Louis License Collector Mavis Thompson gave Torch Electronics permission to place the machines in scores of gas stations, restaurants and small grocery stores across the city.

Records show Torch applied for special amusement device decals in mid-June. The company paid $10 each for the decals and was cleared to place them in the various establishments on July 22.

Approval of the decals came amid a rise in concern by some state officials about the spread of illegal gambling machines.

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 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.”

“Torch Electronic’s machines follow the letter and spirit of Missouri law,” said Torch spokesman Gregg Keller.

The license collector’s office issues permits for a wide range of businesses in St. Louis. One category includes coin-operated amusement devices like pool tables, jukeboxes and, in the case of Torch’s machines, the gaming terminals.

Among the St. Louis businesses listed as having the devices are JJ Fish and Chicken in the 4000 block of Natural Bridge Avenue, Northway Supermarket in the 5500 block of West Florissant Avenue and Maurizio’s Pizza & Sports Bar at 220 South Tucker Boulevard.

A handful of gas stations in the city operated by Midwest Petroleum also are licensed to have machines.

Lee Goodman, general counsel for the license collector’s office, said vendors are not asked what kind of machine they are installing when they receive an application for a decal.

St. Louis License Collector Mavis Thompson

St. Louis License Collector Mavis Thompson participates in the Greater St. Louis Labor Council's Labor Day Parade on Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

He also said office personnel typically don’t visit stores to check whether illegal gambling machines are present.

“We don’t have that kind of expertise,” Goodman said. “They are not trained on those guidelines.”

At the same time the machines began appearing, video gaming companies started spending big dollars on Missouri politicians who are considering whether to legalize slot machines in bars, restaurants and gas stations.

A campaign committee raising money for Gov. Mike Parson received at least $20,000 in contributions from Torch, 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.

Keller, who was hired as the company spokesman, is a high-profile Republican consultant.

Another video gambling company linked to a brewing federal corruption probe in Illinois has poured more than $113,000 into Missouri campaign coffers over the past two years.

Illinois-based Gold Rush Gaming was among a number of businesses and individuals named in a search warrant following a September raid by federal agents of the offices of Illinois state Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Democrat from Chicago’s south suburbs.

Since 2018, records show Gold Rush executives have contributed $30,000 to Parson and a political action committee raising money in support of his 2020 election campaign.

At least $10,000 has gone to the House Republican Campaign Committee, which raises money to support Republican candidates in the Legislature.

And, Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, received $7,800.

In response to a Post-Dispatch inquiry, Keller again did not provide answers to some questions, including how many machines are 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.

“Our games are fair to those who play them and contribute to the viability of the family-owned small businesses who operate them,” Keller said. “Restricting or prohibiting the use of these machines strips these small business owners of necessary revenue to keep their doors open. Banning these machines will force layoffs and cause many stores to shutter.”

Lottery opposition

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In October, months after Torch had already gotten the decals from the license office, the Missouri Lottery sent out an alarm, outlining its concern that the machines are draining money away from the lottery.

“Similar devices have been installed across that state at an increasingly rapid pace,” said a memo from the lottery obtained by the Post-Dispatch. “After an examination of the issues, the Commission believes that many of these devices may be ‘gambling devices’ under Missouri law.”

The association representing Missouri’s 13 gambling casinos also say the machines could be siphoning players from their establishments.

In addition to concerns from the lottery and the gaming commission, Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd has taken a terminal supplier to court in a case that could determine whether the rest of the state can shut down the terminals.

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.

Goodman, the lawyer for the license collector’s office, said local officials will be watching the Platte County court case and the Legislature for signals on how to deal with businesses like Torch in the future.

“I think some clarity needs to be brought to the whole question of what is a slot machine,” Goodman said.

Keller said the push to contain the spread of the machines is bad for business.

“Efforts by Jefferson City bureaucrats to increase taxes, fees and red tape on middle class Missourians only hurt our state’s mom-and-pop stores,” Keller said.

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