By Stephen Koranda – Kansas News Service
Just weeks before his first primary to defend his congressional seat, U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins faced multiple charges Tuesday stemming from him registering to vote using the address of a UPS storefront.
The news broke moments before the freshman Republican appeared in a debate with two GOP challengers.
Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay filed multiple felony counts against Watkins: interference with law enforcement; providing false information; voting without being qualified; and unlawful advance voting. He was also charged with a misdemeanor for failing to tell the Department of Motor Vehicles about a change of address.
The charges stem from a ballot Watkins cast in a local election last year.
In December, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that Watkins used a UPS store address on his voter registration. The congressman listed his official residence as a UPS Store in Topeka on a change-of-address form for voter registration in August 2019. Then he signed an application for a mail-in ballot in October.
That allowed him to vote in a different city council district race than he would have before changing his registration. The UPS store falls in a city council district where the election was decided by 13 votes.
At the time, Watkins’ office said he made an inadvertent mistake, listing his campaign’s mailing address rather than his home. Later he changed that address to an apartment complex in Topeka.
At the start of a debate Tuesday night, Watkins dismissed the charges as “clearly hyper-political.”
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said. “As soon as I realized that I had put my mailing address instead of my physical address, we fixed it.”
He said he hadn’t yet seen the charges, but that he had cooperated with the district attorney “completely.”
“I look forward to clearing my name,” Watkins said. “Truly, the timing is suspicious.”
Party regulars typically put extra effort into backing first-term incumbents. Watkins narrowly won a divided Republican primary in 2018 and then the general election with the help of advertising funding from his father.
Now he faces a challenge from two GOP candidates with ties to establishment factions of the local party. He’s in a primary fight with Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner and Dennis Taylor, who worked for former Gov. Sam Brownback and other Republicans.
Watkins suggested that LaTurner was behind the charges because he shared a political consultant with the district attorney.
But that prosecutor, Kagay, said the delay between when the story about Watkins registration broke late last year and the filing of charges on Tuesday reflects a delay caused by the shutdown that came in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Watkins’ best-known challenger, LaTurner, said the charges effectively push Watkins out of the race.
“It’s safe to say that this is now a two-person race,” LaTurner said. “The reality is Steve Watkins needs to take responsibility for what he’s done.”
Watkins has faced some controversiesbefore, like allegations he embellished his work growing an overseas business and his claims of leadership in an emergency when an earthquake struck during a climb of Mount Everest.
An earlier version of this story misstated which primary opponent Watkins accused of playing a role in the charges.
Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.
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