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A pair of companies suing the state to block a crackdown on unregulated slot machines combined this week to drop $350,000 into six political action committees tied to a controversial lobbyist.

According to disclosures filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission this week, Torch Electronics and Warrenton Oil made a series of donations to MO Majority PAC, Missouri Growth PAC, Missouri C PAC, Missouri Senior PAC, Missouri AG PAC and Conservative Leaders of Missouri.

Each PAC has ties to Steve Tilley, a lobbyist and former state lawmaker who is a fundraiser and close adviser to Gov. Mike Parson.

Torch wrote eight checks, each for $33,333. All were reported this week.

Warrenton Oil wrote seven checks, each for $13,000.

Tilley's lobbying firm represents Torch, which owns games that operate like slot machines in locations around the state.

The Missouri Gaming Commission has deemed them gambling devices, which are prohibited outside of licensed casinos, and the state Highway Patrol considers them illegal. Several local prosecutors are also pursuing criminal charges against the companies that own and house the machines.

A Kansas-based company that was operating these machines in Platte County was found guilty by a circuit court judge late last year of promoting illegal gambling in the first degree.

However, Torch has argued, in its lawsuit and in legislative hearings, their machines are not gambling devices. Since they reveal the outcome of the wager before a player moves forward, they are a game of chance, the company contends, and therefore not illegal.

The company joined with Warrenton Oil, which hosts Torch devices in its FastLane convenience stores, to sue the Missouri State Highway Patrol and other state agencies, claiming to be victims of a "campaign of harassment and intimidation."

Legislative efforts to rein in these so-called "gray-market machines" have fallen short, with most now expecting their future to be decided in the courts.

This week's campaign contributions continue a pattern for Torch in recent years.

The company writes checks to a constellation of political action committees connected to Tilley, which then makes donations to elected officials.

Since 2018, Torch has donated roughly $430,000 to six of Tilley's PACs.

These PACs have been embroiled in controversy before for similar activity — including drawing scrutiny from the FBI.

In 2017, one of Tilley's clients, Gardner Capital, donated to four of his PACs. Those PACs then made donations that combined to total $10,000 to Independence Mayor Eileen Weir.

Just days after the donations, Weir and the city council voted to spend nearly $1 million to buy a golf course for a solar farm in a joint venture with Gardner Capital. The money used to purchase the golf club came from another Tilley lobbying client, the city's utility, Independence Power & Light.

Numerous officials in Independence would subsequently report being questioned about the donations and the contract, though everyone involved denied any wrongdoing.

A spokesman for Torch declined comment, other than to clarify the size of the donations. Tilley did not respond to a request for comment.

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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