This is a story of two gas stations.
The first is on the north side of the city of St. Louis. There, in a back room, the owner handed small amounts of money to various councilmen, according to federal bribery charges. A thousand here, two thousand there. Former aldermen Jeffrey Boyd and John Collins-Muhammad, and former alderman Lewis Reed, were charged with bribery for promising development benefits to the station owner in exchange for the money. They have pleaded not guilty and have resigned from their elected offices.
The other gas station is in rural Missouri. In fact, there are dozens of gas stations, convenience stores, and bars in cities and counties across the state. Inside, they offer video game terminals. Several Missouri prosecutors have echoed the words of Greene County Prosecutor Dan Patterson, who said in court documents after the Missouri State Highway Patrol seized some machinery at a gas station, “There is a great deal more than a reasonable possibility that ( the) machines are illegal gambling machines.”
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Some prosecutors and various state legislatures do not believe state laws allow the machines. But they keep working. More and more companies are flooding the state with it.
One of the largest operators of the machines Patterson deals with is a company called Torch Electronics. Its owner, Steve Miltenberger, lives in Wildwood. Torch stocks many of its machines at Warrenton Oil Co. convenience stores. The two companies hired Steve Tilley, a former Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives, as their lobbyist.
On the same day that Reed, Boyd and Collins-Muhammad pleaded not guilty to the bribery, Warrenton Oil donated a total of $90,000 to six different political action committees associated with Tilley. That’s perfectly legal. Missouri does not have campaign funding limits for committees not directly associated with an elected official.
A week earlier, Torch gave $240,000 to the same six committees. Based on historical practice, these six committees will then pass that money on to various state legislatures, sometimes going through one or two other committees in the process. These lawmakers are the reason the Missouri legislature failed to pass legislation this year clarifying what prosecutors have been claiming: that Torch’s and other companies’ video devices are not legal.
“Right now, Missouri is the Wild West of illegal gaming devices,” Senator Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, said last year. “Nobody knows if taxes are paid, nobody knows what the payouts are, and nobody knows if the consumer is protected.”
Torch and Warrenton Oil have defended their machines as legal. The companies have filed lawsuits in Greene and Cole counties to block investigations into their machines.
The dichotomy in the two situations, both of which take place at gas stations, is strong.
Reed, Boyd and Collins-Muhammad are all black. They are accused of accepting a few thousand dollars in cash for government favors, most of which have not been delivered.
Tilley, the owners of the companies he represents, and the majority of lawmakers to whom his affiliated committees donate are White. They’re set in an area of campaign finance law that’s always been muddy in Missouri. Millions of dollars are at stake. Over the past year, the two companies — Torch and Warrenton Oil — have made approximately $350,000 in campaign contributions to the various Tilley-affiliated committees.
When Tilley was Speaker of the House, he famously helped undercut an ethics bill that would have made it harder for lobbyists and corporations to disguise the original source of their campaign funds if passed as his bipartisan committee drafted it. Tilley left office with a cash-flowing campaign fund, used it to set up new political action committees, and then used those committees as a lobbyist to ensure campaign contributions from his clients went to lawmakers who could help them.
That is the state of politics in Missouri.
If you’re a small business owner taking cash from a back room at a gas station, you’ll be charged with bribery, as it should be.
Meanwhile, the big corporations that operate video machines that the state patrol has declared illegal carry their pockets full of cash right to their doorsteps.
The sacrifice in both systems is the same. Had the St. Louis gas station owner received the tax break they wanted, thousands of dollars in taxes would have been deducted from the St. Louis public schools. Last week, the director of the Missouri Lottery resigned, in part, she says, because the lottery’s unregulated video machines are draining resources that should benefit public education.
Frugal campaign donors win. lose school children. justice awaits.