COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Gambling interests positioning for lucrative business as Ohio remakes its betting landscape donated nearly $1 million to a nonprofit group that helped successfully reelect Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a key decision-maker regarding the market’s future, an Associated Press review found.
The casino operators, slot machine makers, gaming technology companies, sports interests or their lobbyists that donated to the Republican Governors Association between January 2021 and this past September have stakes in Ohio’s state lottery, the $1 billion sports betting industry launching in Ohioon Jan. 1, or both.
During the same period, RGA funneled over $2.2 million through its campaign arm, RGA Right Direction PAC, to benefit DeWine’s successful reelection bid against three primary opponents and later Democrat Nan Whaley, records show. Most of that money went to two pro-DeWine committees: Free Ohio PAC and the Delaware-based dark money group Ohioans for Free and Fair Elections, whose public filings so far haven’t disclosed its organizers. The RGA did not respond to repeated AP requests for comment.
Those contributing companies that responded to AP requests for comment said their giving wasn’t earmarked for DeWine. Two said they pay annual membership dues to RGA and give to Democratic governors, as well.
As governor, DeWine controls appointments to two commissions that hold sway over the swirl of lucrative contracts, complex regulations and coveted licensing agreements in play as Ohio sets up its new sports gaming marketplace and weighs expanded lottery offerings.
Of incumbent Republican governors in the U.S. that the RGA worked to reelect, DeWine was the only one at the time of the giving who was in the thick of considering sports betting.
DeWine spokesperson Dan Tierney said the governor does not promise anything in exchange for political donations, noting that would be illegal.
In one case the AP turned up, one of the gambling companies, IGT Global Solutions, donated to the RGA, which donated to Right Direction PAC, which donated to Free Ohio PAC — all on the same day. The instance raises questions about whether RGA was used as a pass-through to benefit DeWine. All told, Right Direction PAC gave $1.05 million to Free Ohio and another $1.15 million to Ohioans for Free and Fair Elections as of September, records show.
IGT spokesperson Phil O’Shaughnessy said IGT has a long history of participating 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 specializing in political giving, said the money moving into and out of RGA coffers follows a typical pattern of money in politics.
“To the average Ohio voter, it will be apparent that this is legal laundering of money,” she said. “It’s the pass-through, 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 pretty likely, if not evident, that this is how it was done.”
Funneling corporate dollars through nonprofit organizations and political action committees isn’t new. A virtually identical pattern surfaced during the run-up to passage of state House Bill 6, the nuclear energy bailout at the center of an alleged $60 million scheme in which Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. admitted to bribes. FirstEnergy gave more than $1 million in donations to nonprofits and political committees backing DeWine, and some went to the RGA, the Dayton Daily News reported.
Prosecutors have never suggested that DeWine was involved in that scheme. However, FirstEnergy admitted to paying a $4.3 million bribe to Sam Randazzo around the time that 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 giving to nonprofits and PACs became virtually unlimited after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, as long as the groups are independent and the efforts uncoordinated with candidates.
The approach obscures the sway donors have on politicians’ decisions, said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a government watchdog group.
“Ohioans should be able to follow the money so that they’re able to identify who is attempting to influence public policy,” she said. “Instead, we are left with political ads that have a disclaimer or a ‘paid for by’ that is from an organization that we actually have to work to figure out where they got their funding.”
The gambling-related contributions to RGA came during a period of intense upheaval surrounding legal gaming in Ohio.
DeWine signed a bill last year legalizing sports betting and an operating budget that authorized electronic instant bingo at Ohio veterans and fraternal clubs. Further, state senators passed a bill in June seeking to settle a long-running stalemate 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 process this year of rebidding its lucrative central gaming system contract, worth more than $90 million every two years, said spokesperson Danielle Frizzi-Babb.
Intralot Inc., which holds the current contract and renewals through 2027, donated $75,000 to the RGA in June, not long after IGT — a would-be competitor for that business — gave a series of donations totaling $185,000, records show. Intralot declined a request for comment. It did not give to the RGA’s Democratic counterpart.
IGT subsequently contributed another $135,000 to RGA, for a total of $320,000 over the year. A company that merged with IGT in 2015, GTECH, ran Ohio’s lottery for more than 20 years.
Yet those are just two of the companies, lobbyists or interest groups with stakes in Ohio’s gaming marketplace that show up as RGA donors.
Both NeoPollard Interactive, the company chosen to receive a state iLottery contract stalled since 2019, and a potential rival in that arena, Scientific Games Corp., donated to the RGA in the weeks before iLottery legislation was introduced in the Ohio House in November 2021. NeoPollard donated $25,450, while Scientific Games donated $75,450.
A representative of Scientific Games said the giving was part of its annual RGA membership, and that it also gives to the Democratic Governors Association. Records show its 2022 total to DGA 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 lobbyist for the lottery app JackPocket, contributed $25,000 to RGA in January. He didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
Another DeWine insider, lobbyist Richard Hillis, represents several gaming clients — including Scientific Games and its successor Light & Wonder, Jacobs Entertainment and Caesars Enterprise Services. Caesars gave $250,000 to RGA in April. A message was left with Hillis seeking comment. Caesars, which also gave $100,000 to the DGA this year, did not respond to such a request.
One of NeoPollard’s lobbyists is former state legislator and ex-Ohio Republican Chair Kevin DeWine, a long-time friend of Husted’s and the governor’s second cousin. He also declined comment. The company did not donate to the Democratic governors’ group this year, according to its December report.
RGA received additional donations from the Sports Betting Alliance ($120,000) and from the Fair Gaming Coalition of Ohio ($25,000), a consortium of bowling alleys, bars and other businesses that pushed for inclusion in Ohio’s sports betting industry. An attorney for the alliance said its donation was unrelated to DeWine or even Ohio. The coalition’s director didn’t respond to a request for comment. Neither donated to the DGA.