OPEKA, 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 with fellow Republicans pushing to oust him from the eastern Kansas seat he barely won in 2018,
while 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 th
e 2nd District seat live if he wins the first.
Watkins called the fees “hyper-political” while the public prosecutor w
ho filed them is also a Republican. The congressman said during a televised debate Tuesday evening that he hadn’t
seen the costs but has done nothing wrong.
“I’ll get my name exonerated,” he said during his closing statement.
The charges were filed in state district court in Shawnee County,
which incorporates Watkins’ hometown, the capital of Topeka.
public prosecutor Mike Kagay announced them but half an h
our 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 neighborhood council and college board election in November 2019.
He later changed his residential listing.
The most serious criminal charge accuses Watkins of voting within the 2019 local
city and faculty 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 before and interfering with enforcement
by providing false information. Both felonies could refer to seven months in prison
, though a year’s probation is that the presumed sentence.
Watkins also was charged with failing to notify the state Division of Vehicles of a change of address
, a misdemeanor.
Kagay’s announcement failed to provide details about the alleged crimes, and therefore the prosecuting
officer said in an email that he couldn’t discuss them “until they’re presented in open court.”
A hearing within the case was set for Dec. 3 — a month after the November election.
Watkins faces treasurer Jake LaTurner and Dennis Taylor, a Topeka attorney, businessman and former top administrator at several state agencies.
LaTurner said the fees make the first contest a two-person race between him and Taylor.
“We must put our greatest foot forward,
” LaTurner said during his opening debate statement. “Clearly, our current congressman, with three felony charges
and a misdemeanor charge, isn’t the person to try to to that.”
Some Republicans had lingering misgivings about Watkins even before questions about
his voter registrations. he’s a former military 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 election by but a mathematical notation in a very GOP-leaning district that
Trump carried by a good margin in 2016.
The presumed Democratic nominee this year is Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla.
The national party has said it sees “an opportunity” to choose up the seat.
“If you would like to be trusted to put in writing our laws, you must a minimum of follow them,
” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said during 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 council race in November.
The congressman and his staff have said he inadvertently listed his address rather than his residential address by mistake.
Watkins filed a brand new form in December listing an address at an apartment complex about 2 miles north of the
UPS store as his residence, but it had been the address for the complex’s office.
That address wasn’t within the same council district because the UPS store but during a d
istrict with no council race last year.
In January, Watkins filed another form listing another address for an apartment within 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
a particular issue,” without being more specific
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