Prosecutor: Kansas congressman blamed staff for registration

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A freshman Kansas congressman misled a sheriff’s detective by blaming staff for a problem with his state voter registration form that led to three felony criminal charges, a prosecutor alleged Monday in a new court filing.

Republican Rep. Steve Watkins listed a postal box at a UPS Inc. store in Topeka as his residence for voter registration purposes for more than three months starting in late August 2019. The charges against him in state district court in Shawnee County include voting illegally in a Topeka City Council race in November 2019 and hampering law enforcement by providing false information to the sheriff’s detective in a February interview during an investigation of whether Watkins broke state election laws.

Watkins has called the charges “bogus” and his attorney filed a request last week with the presiding judge in the case to have District Attorney Mike Kagay disqualified. Watkins’ lawyer alleges that Kagay, a Republican, has a conflict of interest because Kagay’s re-election campaign this year shares a direct mail provider with State Treasurer Jake LaTurner, who is seeking to unseat Watkins in the Aug. 4 primary.

Deputy District Attorney Brett Watson filed a response Monday that called the arguments of Watkins’ attorney “superficial” and said Kagay has met LaTurner only once, in passing. In the filing, Watson provided previously undisclosed details about the allegation that Watkins misled the sheriff’s detective.

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The deputy district attorney said that Watkins told the sheriff’s detective that one of the congressman’s staffers completed the incorrect voter registration form.

“But he did not know which one,” Watson added.

But Watkins campaign spokesman Bryan Piligra said in an email to The Associated Press that LaTurner “should consider putting the Shawnee County DA on his campaign payroll.”

“It’s no surprise that LaTurner and his cronies in the prosecutor’s office would twist the truth to cover up the collusion and corruption that is becoming obvious in this case,” Piligra said.

LaTurner accused Watkins of “spinning lies and blaming others.”

“It is unconscionable that a congressman would stoop to the level of throwing his own staff under the bus rather than owning up to his own actions,” LaTurner said.

Watkins filed a state voter registration form in late August 2019 listing the UPS postal box as his residential address. The postal box still was listed as his residential address when he cast a mailed-in ballot that included the Topeka City Council race.

The congressman and his staff have said he inadvertently listed his mailing address instead of his residential address by mistake. Watkins later twice corrected his address to an apartment, but it is not in the same City Council district as the UPS store, raising questions about potential illegal voting.

Watson said in Monday’s filing that Watkins initially declined to provide a list of his staffers, and the sheriff’s department obtained subpoenas from a judge in June. The filing said Watkins’ attorney asked on June 30 to be present when Watkins staffers were interviewed even though he did not represent them because Watkins is their employer.

Watkins provided the district attorney’s office with two unidentified staffers’ names on July 10, according to the deputy district attorney’s filing. Four days later, the district attorney’s office learned that the attorney representing the two staffers was not available and would be on a two-week vacation. Kagay filed the criminal charges against Watkins that day.

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