COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Gambling interests position themselves for a lucrative business as Ohio remakes its gambling landscape donated nearly $1 million to a nonprofit group that helped successfully re-elect Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, a key person in making decisions about the future of the market, the Associated Press Review found.
Casino operators, slot machine manufacturers, gaming technology companies, sports interests or their lobbyists who donated to the Republican Governors Association between January 2021 and last September have stakes in the Ohio state lottery, the industry billion-dollar sportsbook that launched in Ohio on January 1. 1, or both.
During the same period, the RGA funneled more than $2.2 million through its campaign arm, the RGA Right Direction PAC, to benefit DeWine’s successful reelection against three primary opponents and then Democrat Nan Whaley, records show. Most of that money went to two pro-DeWine committees: the Free Ohio PAC and the Delaware-based dark money group Ohioans for Free and Fair Elections, whose public filings have so far failed to reveal their organizers. The RGA did not respond to AP’s repeated requests for comment.
Business contributors that responded to AP’s requests for comment said their donation was not intended for DeWine. Two said they pay annual membership dues to the RGA and also give to Democratic governors.
As governor, DeWine controls the appointments of two commissions that dominate the whirlwind of lucrative contracts, complex regulations and coveted licensing deals at stake as Ohio establishes its new sports gaming market and evaluates expanded lottery bids.
Of the incumbent Republican governors in the US that the RGA worked to re-elect, DeWine was the only one at the time of the donation who was considering sports betting.
DeWine’s spokesman, Dan Tierney, said the governor does not promise anything in exchange for political donations and noted that doing so would be illegal.
In one case, AP appeared, one of the gaming companies, IGT Global Solutions, donated to the RGA, which donated to the Right Direction PAC, which donated to the Free Ohio PAC, all on the same day. The instance raises questions about whether RGA was used as a transfer to benefit DeWine. In all, Right Direction PAC awarded $1.05 million to Free Ohio and another $1.15 million to Ohioans for Free and Fair Elections as of September, records show.
IGT spokesman Phil O’Shaughnessy said IGT has a long history of engaging in the political process through bipartisan contributions to organizations like the RGA and its Democratic counterpart, and that all contributions are properly disclosed. Records show IGT gave the Democratic Governors Association donations totaling $300,000 in 2022.
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan research group that specializes in political donations, said the money flowing in and out of RGA coffers follows a pattern typical of money in politics.
“To the average Ohio voter, it will be apparent that this is legal money laundering,” he said. “It’s the trade, it’s the shell game, and it goes there and then it goes there. There’s no proof, ‘Yeah, we did that,’ but the circumstances make it quite probable, if not self-evident, that this is how it’s done. “
Channeling corporate dollars through nonprofit organizations and political action committees is not new. A virtually identical pattern emerged in the run-up to the passage of House Bill 6, the nuclear power bailout at the center of an alleged $60 million scheme in which Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. , admitted to having bribed. FirstEnergy gave more than $1 million in donations to nonprofit organizations and political committees that support DeWine, with some going to the RGA, the Dayton Daily News reported.
Prosecutors never suggested that DeWine was involved in that scheme. However, FirstEnergy admitted paying a $4.3 million bribe to Sam Randazzo around the time Lt. Gov. Jon Husted helped recruit him and DeWine selected him as the state’s top utility regulator.
Under federal and state law, corporations are prohibited from giving directly to candidates. However, corporate donations to nonprofits and PACs became virtually unlimited after the 2010 US Supreme Court Citizens United decision, as long as the groups are independent and efforts are not coordinated with The candidates.
The approach obscures the influence donors have on politicians’ decisions, said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a government watchdog group.
“Ohioans should be able to track the money so they can identify who is trying to influence public policy,” he said. “Instead, we’re left with political ads that have a disclaimer or a ‘paid for by’ that is from an organization that we really have to work with to find out where they got their funding from.”
The gaming-related contributions to RGA came during a period of intense turmoil surrounding legal gambling in Ohio.
DeWine signed a bill last year legalizing sports betting and an operating budget authorizing instant electronic bingo at Ohio frat and veterans clubs. In addition, state senators approved a bill in June that seeks to resolve a longstanding impasse over internet-based lottery gaming, or iLottery, in the state, clarifying that the state lottery commission overseen by DeWine has the ability to operate such games. The legislation died in the House last week.
The Ohio Lottery Commission also began the bidding process this year for its lucrative central gaming system contract, worth more than $90 million every two years, spokeswoman Danielle Frizzi-Babb said.
Intralot Inc., which has the current contract and renewals through 2027, donated $75,000 to RGA in June, shortly after IGT, a potential competitor to that business, made a series of donations totaling $185,000, records show. . Intralot declined a request for comment. He did not give the RGA’s Democratic counterpart.
IGT subsequently contributed another $135,000 to RGA, for a total of $320,000 for the year. A company that merged with IGT in 2015, GTECH, ran the Ohio Lottery for more than 20 years.
However, those are just two of the companies, lobbyists or interest groups with stakes in the Ohio gaming market listed as RGA donors.
Both NeoPollard Interactive, the company chosen to receive a stalled iLottery state contract since 2019, and a potential rival in that arena, Scientific Games Corp., donated to the RGA in the weeks before the iLottery legislation was introduced in the House. of Ohio Representatives in November 2021. NeoPollard donated $25,450, while Scientific Games donated $75,450.
A Scientific Games representative said the donation was part of his annual RGA membership, which he also gives to the Democratic Governors Association. Records show that his total for DGA in 2022 was $125,000. NeoPollard did not respond to a request for comment.
In another case, Michael Kiggin, a member of DeWine’s inner circle and a lobbyist for lottery app JackPocket, contributed $25,000 to RGA in January. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Another DeWine member, lobbyist Richard Hillis, represents various gaming clients, including Scientific Games and its successor Light & Wonder, Jacobs Entertainment, and Caesars Enterprise Services. Caesars gave RGA $250,000 in April. A message was left with Hillis seeking comment. Caesars, which also provided $100,000 to the DGA this year, did not respond to that request.
One of NeoPollard’s lobbyists is former state legislator and former Ohio Republican Chairman Kevin DeWine, a longtime friend of Husted’s and the governor’s second cousin. He also declined to comment. The company made no donations to the group of Democratic governors this year, according to its December report.
RGA received additional donations from the Sports Betting Alliance ($120,000) and the Fair Gaming Coalition of Ohio ($25,000), a consortium of bowling alleys, bars, and other businesses that lobbied for inclusion in Ohio’s sports betting industry. An attorney for the alliance said his donation was not related to DeWine or even Ohio. The coalition director did not respond to a request for comment. He also did not donate to the DGA.