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Kansas congressman forced to leave committees after charges

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A freshman Kansas congressman facing felony criminal charges over previously listing a UPS Inc. postal box as his residence on a state voter registration form has been forced to temporarily give up his House committee assignments.

Republican Rep. Steve Watkins said Friday that he is “temporarily and voluntarily” leaving the three committees on which he serves. But the House Republican conference's rules require members facing a potential felony conviction to leave their committee posts.

He also lost the backing of Kansans for Life, the state's most influential anti-abortion group. It had endorsed him and a GOP rival, State Treasurer Jake LaTurner, and now is endorsing only LaTurner. "In light of Watkins’ recent legal situation and his resignation from his congressional committee assignments, KFL PAC felt that it was prudent to re-evaluate the safety of this pro-life seat," said Melissa Leach, the director of the group's political action committee. Watkins' campaign did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the group's action Friday.

Watkins stepped aside from his committees two days after three felony charges and one misdemeanor charge against him were filed by the local district attorney in state district court in Shawnee County, which includes his hometown, the state capital of Topeka. He is accused of voting illegally in a Topeka City Council race in November 2019 and providing false information to a sheriff's deputy who was investigating whether he broke state election laws.

“Throughout my entire career, I have put service above myself, and this instance is no different,” Watkins, a former Army officer and military contractor said, adding that he was stepping aside so that the committees can “continue their critical work.”

He had been serving on the House education, foreign affairs and veterans’ affairs committees. Some Republicans already were trying to oust Watkins in the state's Aug. 4 primary, even though he's largely toed the conservative line and supported President Donald Trump. Critics see Watkins as vulnerable to a Democratic challenge because he won his seat as political novice in 2018 by less than a percentage point in a GOP-leaning eastern Kansas district that Trump easily carried in 2016. The investigation into his voter registrations added to some Republicans' misgivings.

LaTurner picked up the endorsement of Wichita-area Rep. Ron Estes on Thursday, with Estes citing the criminal charges as one reason. "It is unfortunate that our veterans, foreign service professionals and all Kansans won’t be receiving the representation they deserve because Steve Watkins has not been conducting himself as an elected member of Congress should,” LaTurner spokeswoman Kara Zeyer said in a statement.

Dennis Taylor, a Topeka attorney, businessman and former head of several state agencies, also is seeking the Republican nomination, and the presumed Democratic nominee is Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla.

A hearing in Watkins' criminal case isn't set until Dec. 3, a month after the November general election. 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. He 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.

Watkins' reelection campaign launched a new ad Friday accusing Shawnee Country District Attorney Mike Kagay of colluding with LaTurner because both share a direct-mail consultant who provides services to many Republican candidates. Watkins' attorney has asked a judge to declare that Kagay has a conflict of interest and disqualify him from prosecuting the case.

"I look forward to exposing the corruption and collusion behind this blatant political prosecution and holding those responsible accountable,” Watkins said in his statement. Kagay said in an email that he would file a written response to Watkins attorney with the district court.

Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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