Kansas Congressman Faces Felony Charges Related to 2019 Election

U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins of Kansas.

(CN) — Mere weeks before he faces voters in a hotly contested GOP primary, freshman Congressman Steve Watkins of Kansas faces three felony charges after a local newspaper discovered that he listed the location of a UPS Store as his home address on voter registration forms. 

Authorities charged Watkins, a Republican from Topeka, with felony charges of unlawful voting, unlawful advance voting and providing false information to law enforcement, along with a misdemeanor charge of failing to notify the DMV of his change of address.

Adding to the intrigue, the charges were announced minutes before Watkins appeared in a televised debate with his two Republican primary opponents Tuesday evening.

“I look forward to clearing my name. I’ve done nothing wrong,” Watkins claimed during the debate, adding he thought the timing was “very suspicious.”

Bryan Piligra, spokesman for Watkins’ reelection campaign, went even further in a statement Wednesday

“Give us a break. Thirty minutes before the first televised debate and the day before early voting starts, the DA files these bogus charges. They couldn’t have been more political if they tried,” Piligra said.

Calling the charges a “personal attack,” Piligra claimed Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay, also a Republican, shares a political consultant with Jake LaTurner, Watkins’ main opponent in the Aug. 4 primary.

The charges outlined in a press release from Kagay’s office are related to alleged voter fraud during the 2019 local election. The DA noted the case has been under investigation since December 2019 but was “delayed significantly due to the Covid-19 shutdown.”

A report from December in the Topeka Capital-Journal revealed Watkins changed his address on voting forms in order to switch districts and vote in a City Council election that was ultimately decided by 13 votes, claiming the address of a UPS Store in Topeka as his residence. He then requested a mail-in ballot be sent to the Washington, D.C. home of his chief of staff. Watkins does not reside in either location.

He claims these were simple mistakes and that he amended the forms immediately after being informed of his mistake.

If convicted, he faces fines of up to $100,000 and up to five years in prison, according to the Capital-Journal. Probation is more likely.

Watkins won election to the House of Representatives by beating his Democratic opponent by less than 1% in the 2018 midterm election, after taking 26% of the vote in a field of seven GOP primary candidates. At the time, Brad Parscale, President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, published an op-ed in the Capital-Journal that urged voters to not support Watkins in the primary, as Watkins apparently falsely claimed that he had been endorsed by Trump.

More controversy followed Watkins in the 2018 general election. The Associated Press reported Watkins made false claims about small business successes and purported heroism while climbing Mount Everest. And last year, the AP reported a homeowners association in Alaska initiated foreclosure proceedings on a condo that is still owned by Watkins because of an outstanding debt.

Also in 2018, Watkins’ Democratic opponent cited evidence that Watkins had never voted in a general election in Kansas.

As a result, Watkins’ seat is a popular target for both Democrats and more mainstream Republicans who fear a growing list of missteps will make it difficult for him to win re-election. LaTurner, Watkins’ main GOP challenger and current state treasurer, dropped a bid for U.S. Senate this year to oppose Watkins.

In the meantime, Watkins and his campaign are trying to defend against attacks from both the right and left while also defending his record.

“Just like President Trump, Steve is being politically prosecuted by his opponents who can’t accept the results of the last election,” said Piligra, the campaign spokesman. 

While Watkins found success in 2018 by tying himself closely to Trump — a first-time candidate himself who narrowly won election and is now weighed down by a lengthy list of scandals and evidence of corruption — it remains to be seen if Republican voters in Kansas will continue their association with Watkins.

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