Missouri Governor: VGMs Are Legal

Missouri Governor Mike Parsons (l). said he believes the video gambling machines in the state’s gas stations, bars and truck stops are legal. At the same time, the Missouri Highway Patrol is working to stop the spread of the unregulated, untaxed machines. Supporters claim the games are legal, since players can see the outcome before placing a bet.

Missouri Governor: VGMs Are Legal

In Missouri, investigators in Governor Mike Parson’s administration are trying to stop the proliferation of unregulated and untaxed video gambling machines.

But Parson himself, a former Polk County sheriff, said he’s not convinced the games, which are popping up in gas stations, bars and truck stops across the state, are against the law.

“We first need to clarify what machines constitute gambling and what machines are video games,” Parson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Parson has been watching a Platte County court case that could help state prosecutors determine the difference between games of chance and games of skill. “The distinction between chance and skill determining the outcome of a game is fundamental to the legal analysis of whether operation of a machine violates state law,” Parson said. Games of chance are subject to gaming laws, and if the people want to change the gaming laws, they have the ability to do so using the legislative process, through a ballot initiative or constitutional amendment.”

The governor’s position could affect this year’s legislative session, since lawmakers are proposing to ban slot machines or legalize them to claim tax revenue and regulate them to protect players. Opponents claim slot machines only are allowed in casinos. Supporters maintain they offer players the option of viewing the outcome of a wager before they place a bet, removing the element of chance which would make them illegal—even though players do not have to click on an icon before placing a bet.

In October, a Missouri Highway Patrol lieutenant told a state House committee the machines are illegal and the MHP’s investigations resulted in dozens of criminal referrals to prosecutors, including in Parson’s home county. Polk County Prosecutor Ken Ashlock said unregulated machines have no payout requirements, so operators can keep more money than they would be allowed to in the state’s 13 regulated casinos.

“People are just getting cheated on them, and they don’t know it,” Ashlock said.

The Polk County case involves Michael Gaddis, a 55-year-old insurance adjuster, who was charged with illegal gaming activity for operating a casino 15 miles from Parson’s cattle farm in Bolivar. According to court documents, an MHP officer visited Gaddis’ Vegas Lucky Play Casino in March and saw 15 slot machines plus a sign indicating the establishment would not pay out more than $1,999. The officer played $20 on two machines. Three days later, police returned with a search warrant and seized 16 machines. Gaddis could face up to a year in jail.

One of the most active video gambling machine companies in Missouri is Torch Electronics, based in Wildwood, which contributed $20,000 to Parson’s election campaign. Torch is owned by Steve Miltenberger, and one of its lobbyists is former Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley, a friend of Parson.

Ashlock said a Torch lobbyist, whose name he can’t remember, called him to discuss concerns Ashlock might have about the company’s machines. “It wasn’t improper, but it was unusual. I don’t have many lobbyists calling me. It was kind of odd that he called to do a preemptive strike kind of thing.” Ashlock said he believes the lobbyist wanted to “keep me from filing anything.”

He said he also received a call from a Torch attorney, and St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Timothy Lohmar, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said he also was contacted by a Torch attorney.

“Their attorney reached out to me and asked for a meeting,” Lohmar said. “He wanted to just have a meeting with me to explain from their perspective why they felt their systems were legal. It was an educational opportunity.”

Lohmar said he considers the machines to be legal because players can see the outcome of their wagers before making a bet. He said he’s also awaiting the outcome of the Platte County case—which could take two years to be resolved—before moving forward with any charges.

In addition to the Platte County and Polk County cases, another illegal gaming case has been filed in Cass County, following an investigation by the highway patrol. Possession of gambling device charges also have been filed by prosecutors in Andrew, Audrain, Camden, Johnson and Newton counties, according to Beth Riggert, spokeswoman for the Office of State Courts Administrator.

In other Missouri gambling news, state Rep. Rocky Miller pre-filed a bill that would allow riverboat gambling at the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri. Currently riverboat gambling only is permitted on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers at 13 state-licensed casinos. If legislators would pass Miller’s bill, a referendum would be held on a constitutional amendment to include the Osage River on the list of waterways where casinos are permitted.