A recent Kansas congressman who listed a UPS Inc. mailbox as a residence on a government voter registration form was charged with three crimes, including illegal voting, on Tuesday.
The charges against GOP MP Steve Watkins came three weeks before the August 4 primary, when other Republicans displaced him from eastern Kansas, which he had barely won in 2018, despite largely joining conservative politics and President Donald had supported Trump. GOP critics had already feared that the month-long investigation into whether Watkins violated state election laws would put the 2nd district seat in the game if he won the area code.
Watkins called the charge "hyperpolitical," although the prosecutor who filed it is also a Republican. The congressman said during a television debate on Tuesday evening that he hadn't seen the charges but had done nothing wrong.
"I will have my name relieved," he said during his final statement.
The lawsuit was filed with the Shawnee County District Court, which also includes Watkins’s hometown, Topeka's state capital. District Attorney Mike Kagay announced it less than half an hour before the only scheduled debate of the three GOP candidates in three stations.
The UPS mailbox was listed as Watkins' home address for voter registration when he submitted a postal ballot paper for a local council and school board election in November 2019. He later changed his living list.
The most serious charge accuses Watkins of not having qualified in the 2019 local and school council elections. A first-time offender could face a year in prison, although the more typical sentence would be a two-year suspended sentence.
Kagay also accused Watkins of pre-voting illegally and of misrepresenting law enforcement. Both crimes could result in up to seven months in prison, although a year of probation is the suspected punishment.
Watkins was also accused of not informing the state vehicle department of a change of address, an offense.
Kagay's announcement did not include details of the alleged crimes, and the prosecutor said in an email that he could not discuss them "until they are brought to court." A hearing in this case was scheduled for December 3, a month after the November general election.
Watkins meets state treasurer Jake LaTurner and Dennis Taylor, a Topeka lawyer, businessman, and former top administrator of several state agencies. LaTurner said the charges made the main competition a two-person race between him and Taylor.
"We have to do our best," said LaTurner during his opening debate. "Of course, our current Congressman with three criminal charges and one crime charge is not the person who does it."
Some Republicans were concerned about Watkins even before asking about his voter registrations. He is a former Army officer and military entrepreneur who has spent most of his adult life outside of Kansas and has not participated in state or federal races until his candidacy for Congress.
Watkins won the November 2018 general election by less than one percentage point in a GOP-oriented district that Trump wore by a wide margin in 2016.
The alleged democratic candidate this year is Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla. The National Democratic Party has said it sees "an opportunity" to take over the seat.
"If you want to rely on you to write our laws, you should at least obey them," said the Democratic Congress Campaign Committee in a statement.
Watkins submitted a state voter registration form in late August 2019, which included a mailbox in a UPS store in southwest Topeka as a home address. The mailbox was still listed as his home address when he mailed a letter that included a Topeka City Council race in November.
The congressman and his staff said that he accidentally entered his postal address instead of his home address.
Watkins submitted a new form in December specifying an address in an apartment complex about 2 miles north of the UPS store as his residence, but it was the address for the complex's office. This address was not in the same city council as the UPS Store, but in a district without a city council last year.
In January, Watkins submitted another form listing another address for an apartment in the same complex as his home.
Shawnee County's sheriff department began investigating Watkins' voter registrations in December. At the end of May, Kagay emailed that his office was reviewing the investigation and "requesting follow-up on a particular problem", without being more specific.
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