KS GOP Rep Charged With 3 Felonies 07/15 06:45
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- A freshman Kansas congressman who had listed a UPS Inc.
postal box as his residence on a state voter registration form was charged
Tuesday with three felonies, including illegal voting.
The charges against GOP Rep. Steve Watkins came three weeks before the
state's Aug. 4 primary election with fellow Republicans pushing to oust him
from the eastern Kansas seat he barely won in 2018, even though he's largely
toed the conservative policy line and supported President Donald Trump. GOP
critics already had worried that the months-long investigation into whether
Watkins violated state election laws puts the 2nd District seat in play if he
wins the primary.
Watkins called the charges "hyper-political" even though the district
attorney who filed them also is a Republican. The congressman said during a
televised debate Tuesday evening that he hadn't seen the charges but has done
"I'll get my name exonerated," he said during his closing statement.
The charges were filed in state district court in Shawnee County, which
includes Watkins' hometown, the state capital of Topeka. District Attorney Mike
Kagay announced them less than half an hour before the three GOP candidates'
only scheduled debate began on three stations.
The UPS postal box was listed as Watkins' residential address for voter
registration purposes when he cast a mail-in ballot for a local city council
and school board election in November 2019. He later changed his residential
The most serious criminal charge accuses Watkins of voting in the 2019 local
city and school board election without being qualified. A first-time offender
who's convicted could face a year in prison, though the more typical sentence
would be two years' probation.
Kagay also charged Watkins with voting illegally in advance and interfering
with law enforcement by providing false information. Both felonies could bring
up to seven months in prison, though a year's probation is the presumed
Watkins also was charged with failing to notify the state Division of
Vehicles of a change of address, a misdemeanor.
Kagay's announcement did not provide details about the alleged crimes, and
the district attorney said in an email that he could not discuss them "until
they are presented in open court." A hearing in the case was set for Dec. 3 ---
a month after the November general election.
Watkins faces State Treasurer Jake LaTurner and Dennis Taylor, a Topeka
attorney, businessman and former top administrator at several state agencies.
LaTurner said the charges make the primary contest a two-person race between
him and Taylor.
"We need to put our best foot forward," LaTurner said during his opening
debate statement. "Clearly, our current congressman, with three felony charges
and a misdemeanor charge, is not the person to do that."
Some Republicans had lingering misgivings about Watkins even before
questions about his voter registrations. He is a former Army officer and
military contractor who lived most of his adult life outside Kansas and hadn't
voted in its state or federal races until running for Congress.
Watkins won the November 2018 general election by less than a percentage
point in a GOP-leaning district that Trump carried by a wide margin in 2016.
The presumed Democratic nominee this year is Topeka Mayor Michelle De La
Isla. The national Democratic Party has said it sees "an opportunity" to pick
up the seat.
"If you want to be trusted to write our laws, you should at least follow
them," the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in a statement.
Watkins filed a state voter registration form in late August 2019 listing a
postal box at a UPS store in southwest Topeka as his residential address. The
postal box still was listed as his residential address when he cast a mailed-in
ballot that included a Topeka City Council race in November.
The congressman and his staff have said he inadvertently listed his mailing
address instead of his residential address by mistake.
Watkins filed a new form in December listing an address at an apartment
complex about 2 miles north of the UPS store as his residence, but it was the
address for the complex's office. That address was not in the same City Council
district as the UPS store but in a district with no council race last year.
In January, Watkins filed another form listing another address for an
apartment in the same complex as his residence.
The Shawnee County sheriff's department began investigating Watkins' voter
registrations in December. In late May, Kagay said in an email that his office
had reviewed the investigation and "requested follow up be conducted on a
specific issue," without being more specific.