Lawsuit targets skill-game company over lobbying effort invoking deceased senator
Yvonne Miller estate seeks $1.35M from Queen of Virginia and affiliates
A restaurant on Main Street in Richmond around the corner from Capitol Square advertises Queen of Virginia Skill, a subsidiary of Georgia-based software maker Pace-O-Matic, which has been lobbying against efforts to ban its gaming machines in Virginia. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
The estate of the late Virginia Sen. Yvonne Miller, the first Black woman to serve in both chambers of the General Assembly, is suing a skill-game company over a flier that featured what the lawsuit says was an unauthorized photo of Miller as part of a 2021 lobbying campaign to keep the slots-like machines legal.
The lawsuit, filed in Portsmouth Circuit Court last week, seeks $1.35 million in damages against business entities affiliated with Queen of Virginia, one of the state’s leading suppliers of the electronic gaming machines that rapidly spread to many Virginia sports bars, convenience stores and truck stops.
The legislature has tried to ban the machines, which look similar to slot machines but have a small element of skill that the industry argues shields them from anti-gambling laws. A judge temporarily suspended that ban late last year after business owners represented by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, filed a lawsuit challenging the move.
The flier in question was circulating in Virginia political circles near the end of the 2021 General Assembly session, when the legislature was considering outlawing skill games.
The graphic featured photos and biographical information on Miller, a Democrat who died in 2012, and former Sen. Ben Chafin, a Republican who died of COVID-19 complications in early 2021. Though Miller died a decade ago, lawmakers were discussing her life and impact last year while budgeting $50,000 to start the process of putting a Miller statue on Capitol Square.
The flier touted the possibility of using tax money from the gaming machines to create a “Yvonne B. Miller/Ben Chafin College Scholarship Fund” that would ostensibly help low-income students afford college.
The flier seemed to suggest building on the so-called G3 program championed by former Gov. Ralph Northam, which aimed to make community college more affordable for low-income Virginians.
But the scholarship fund idea never went anywhere. It wasn’t publicly discussed in the legislature or introduced as a bill, but the graphic raised eyebrows for some in Virginia government circles who saw it as a tasteless effort to commandeer the memory of two dead senators for political gain.
The lawsuit claims Queen of Virginia and its affiliates were behind the flier, which the lawsuit says was distributed to Northam’s office and members of the General Assembly and wrongly tied the legacy of the late senator to something she had nothing to do with.
“The defendants jointly published Sen. Miller’s name, photograph and likeness on the flyer in order to demonstrate and bolster their political credibility in order to obtain support from the Virginia legislature and to entice the public at large to purchase their gambling services,” wrote attorneys representing David J. Bond, the administrator of Miller’s estate.
The suit says the defendants have “falsely denied” involvement with the pro-skill game flier, but doesn’t lay out factual proof it was Queen of Virginia’s doing. Frank Kilgore, a Southwest Virginia lawyer who helped bring the case in conjunction with Chesapeake-based Slaven Law Group, said when he inquired about how to make a donation to the proposed scholarship fund, he was directed to Queen of Virginia.
An educator who grew up in the era of segregated schools, Miller was elected to a Norfolk-area House of Delegates seat in 1983. Four years later, she won a seat in the state Senate, where she served until her death.
In a Black History Month speech on the House floor this year, Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, said Miller “shattered racial and gender barriers simultaneously.”
“She was a career educator and an outspoken advocate for Virginia’s poor and minorities,” Hayes said.
The “sham efforts” to tie Miller’s legacy to Queen of Virginia, the suit claims, have “caused damage to the reputation, memory and legacy of Sen. Miller and has caused anger, humiliation and embarrassment among her heirs and family members.”
The flier promoting legal and taxed skill games said “we can help up to 10,000 Virginians pursue degrees,” without elaborating on who was behind the effort.
“The word ‘we’ is all-encompassing and defendants specifically and knowingly used that word to create misinformation and project credibility in their quest for financial and political goals at the expense of Sen. Miller’s name, photograph, reputation and legacy,” the suit says.
The suit points to a state law that prohibits the unauthorized use of a person’s name or image “for advertising purposes or for the purposes of trade.” The flier, which had no identifying information about who created and disseminated it, meets that definition, the suit argues, because it was distributed to Northam’s office and General Assembly members to promote the business interests of the skill-game industry.
As of last year, Queen of Virginia had retained 11 Virginia-based lobbyists from several different firms. Their current roster of lobbyists is down to five, including Brian Moran, who recently served as Northam’s secretary for public safety and homeland security. Since 2018, the company has made more than $790,000 in Virginia political donations, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, including six-figure contributions last year to both Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Asked for comment Monday, a spokesman for Pace-o-Matic, the Georgia-based company behind the Queen of Virginia games, said the company had not yet seen the complaint. The Mercury provided the company with a copy of the complaint early Tuesday morning, but the company said it was unable to comment immediately.
“Our attorneys have not had the opportunity to review the lawsuit and therefore it would be premature to comment at this time,” said Pace-o-Matic spokesman Michael Barley.
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