Republican Rep. Steve Watkins of Kansas faces three felony charges and one misdemeanor related to a 2019 local election, Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay announced Tuesday.
Watkins specifically faces felony criminal charges of interference with law enforcement, providing false information; voting without being qualified; unlawful advance voting; and a misdemeanor charge of failing to notify the DMV of change of address.
News of the charges came moments before Watkins, who is up for reelection in Kansas’ second congressional district, appeared in a primary debate. Asked about the charges, Watkins said they were “very suspicious” and said he looked forward to clearing his name.
“This is clearly hyper-political. It comes out moments before our first debate and three weeks before the election. I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said, adding that he hadn’t yet seen the charges.
“I simply know that I look forward to clearing my name. I’ve done nothing wrong and look forward to setting the record straight.”
Watkins appeared to address the substance of at least one of the charges, stating, “As soon as I had realized that I had put my mailing address instead of my physical address we fixed it.”
In a statement, Bryan Piligra – a spokesman for Watkins’ reelection campaign – called the charges “bogus.”
“Give us a break. 30 minutes before the first televised debate and the day before early voting starts, the DA – who shares a political consultant with our primary opponent Jake LaTurner – files these bogus charges. They couldn’t have been more political if they tried,” Piligra said.
“Just like President Trump, Steve is being politically prosecuted by his opponents who can’t accept the results of the last election. Kansans and Americans are tired of these kinds of silly games. This is a desperate political attack by a desperate political campaign on its dying breath down twenty points. Jake LaTurner is hell bent on seeing Democrat’s win and undermining Republicans at every turn.”
Watkins was first elected to Congress in 2018 after mounting a furious push to save the vulnerable 2nd District seat that had been in the Republican Party’s control for a decade.
But despite winning the election, his ethics were called into question multiple times throughout the campaign.
Watkins had told voters that he started and grew a defense contracting company from scratch. Then the Kansas City Star reported, based on interviews with company officials and records, the company existed before he joined as a consultant.
Watkins told CNN in 2018 he wasn’t misleading voters.
“See, I didn’t own the company,” he said. “But I helped start and grow it operationally. And that’s where they’re thinking that they’re fashioning me as the liar. That’s simply not true.”
Still other embarrassing stories plagued his campaign, including one from The Associated Press calling into question a 2015 expedition he took on Mount Everest when a major earthquake occurred in Nepal.
Watkins’ campaign website quoted an individual who said he showed “heroic leadership amid the chaos.” But that man, Guy Cotter, told the AP that he never made those remarks and claimed there was nothing they could have really done to help in the deadly situation.
Asked about the episode, Watkins told CNN in 2018 that he recalled Cotter making those remarks to him. But he said he removed the testimonial once concerns were raised. Nevertheless, he said, “Nothing that happened or didn’t happen was even being contested.”
“What happened was that there was a 7.8 magnitude earthquake,” Watkins said. “We found ourselves – I was at 19,000 feet. We lived. There were several other fatalities. I exchanged compliments with another climber who doesn’t remember the nature of that compliment being the same as I quoted. I said sorry, I took it down.”
Watkins’ felony charges, however, represent perhaps the biggest political liability he’s faced to date. LaTurner, the Kansas State Treasurer who is running against Watkins, made that much clear during Tuesday’s debate.
“We need to put our best foot forward. Clearly our current congressman, with three felony charges and a misdemeanor charge, is not the person to do that,” LaTurner said.
This story has been updated with additional developments on Tuesday.
CNN’s Manu Raju and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.