Aug 10, 2023

Missouri cops should not moonlight for unregulated gambling companies, lawmaker says

JEFFERSON CITY — A St. Louis-area company running a statewide ring of unregulated slot machines won’t say if it employs police officers to help collect money from the devices.

But, at least one state lawmaker, a former police officer in St. Louis County, says moonlighting for companies like Torch Electronics would be a black eye on law enforcement.

“If they are doing it, I would say they should stop immediately,” said Rep. Justin Sparks, R-Wildwood. “Cops shouldn’t be doing that at all. It’s a conflict of interest. It might even be illegal.”

State Rep. Justin Sparks, R-Wildwood, and a former police officer, questions Chris Hinckley, chief warrant officer in St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner's office, during a hearing of the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee in the State Capitol in Jefferson City on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023.

Sparks was a sergeant on the St. Louis County Police Department’s Special Response Unit, which is responsible for targeted enforcement of street-level crimes. He also was a deputized U.S. marshal in the Eastern District of Missouri, supervising and participating in high-risk fugitive apprehension operations.

Sparks’ comments come as Torch, also of Wildwood, has been sued twice in federal court for its role in flooding Missouri gas stations, bars and truck stops with gambling machines that are unregulated and untaxed.

There are no rules forcing the companies to pay out winnings, nor do the machines produce tax proceeds that, like state-sanctioned casinos, help fund schools and nursing homes for military veterans.

The machines also rake up money but contribute nothing to state funds that are set aside specifically to combat problem gambling and gambling addictions.

Torch, which also is suing the state for alleged harassment after the Missouri Highway Patrol began investigating allegations of illegal gambling, will not say whether it employs police to serve as company representatives who collect money from the machines and deposit it in banks.

“Of course, we don’t comment publicly on personnel matters,” said Torch spokesman Gregg Keller, a Republican consultant who served as coalitions director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2008.

The case Torch brought against the Missouri Department of Public Safety is set to go to trial in Cole County on Aug. 1. Circuit Judge Daniel Green has set aside four days for the bench trial.

The trial could peel back some of the secrecy surrounding Torch’s operation. Green has ordered the company to provide revenue figures for some of its machines, as well as details on where its machines are located.

Concerns about off-duty police being involved in the burgeoning slot machine industry come as Gov. Mike Parson signed legislation earlier this month that adds additional grounds for the discipline of police officers by the state’s Department of Public Safety.

The law, which goes into effect Aug. 28, says discipline can be meted out if a “peace officer has committed any act that involves moral turpitude or a reckless disregard for the safety of the public.”

It also says discipline can be warranted if an officer “has committed any act of gross misconduct indicating inability to function as a peace officer.”

Sparks’ comments signal there are concerns about police working for a company that trades in gambling when the police also could be called to investigate complaints about the machines, such as one being played by a minor or a game where the winnings are disputed.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who was appointed to the post in January, has taken a hands-off approach to the games as he seeks to win a full, four-year term in 2024.

But Bailey, who has the backing of the governor, has made it complicated.

Earlier this year, Bailey withdrew his office from the Torch lawsuit after accepting $25,000 in campaign contributions from political action committees affiliated with the gambling company’s high-powered lobbyist, former House Speaker Steve Tilley.

Parson, the governor who appointed Bailey to the post, also has close connections to Tilley, including records showing thousands of dollars in private flights associated with a Tilley-owned private airplane service, as well as help in fundraising.

A private attorney has been hired at taxpayer expense to defend the state in the 2021 case.

Adding to the political entanglements is Keller’s role. He serves as a political adviser to Bailey’s Republican opponent in the 2024 primary for attorney general, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Will Scharf.

In his response to a Post-Dispatch inquiry, Keller said Torch brass believe the Post-Dispatch is on a “politically driven jihad” against the company, which is headquartered in a suburban, residential neighborhood, according to state business records.

Meantime, state and local police departments have established rules for police department personnel who take on secondary jobs.

The Missouri Highway Patrol, for example, prohibits troopers from moonlighting at “any establishment in which gambling is the principle business.”

In Maplewood, police Chief Matt Nighbor said department policy prohibits employees from taking jobs with Torch.

“Currently, NO Maplewood police officers are employed or authorized to work off-duty secondary employment with Torch Electronics or any other similar gaming company,” Nighbor said in an email.

Nighbor did not respond to a question about past practices involving moonlighting and gambling companies.

At the St. Louis County Police Department, the union contract says any officer whose secondary employment brings discredit to the county or the department may be subject to disciplinary action.

The St. Charles city police department did not respond to multiple requests for information about its policies.

Sparks, a freshman lawmaker, said Missouri’s House and Senate could get involved if police are taking side jobs with gambling firms.

“If that’s happening, I would say something needs to change,” Sparks said.

Forbes reports gambling can be a potentially harmful and severe addiction with the ability to negatively impact your personal and professional life.

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The lawsuit was filed three days after the Missouri Highway Patrol seized three gambling machines from a St. Clair location owned by Warrenton Oil.