Kansas congressman forced to leave committees after charges

FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2019, file photo, U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins, R-Kan., makes a point during a town hall meeting, in Topeka, Kan. Watkins, a freshman Kansas congressman who had listed a UPS Inc. store as his residence on a voter registration, was criminally charged Tuesday, July 14, 2020, with four crimes, including unlawful voting. (AP Photo/John Hanna, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2019, file photo, U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins, R-Kan., makes a point during a town hall meeting, in Topeka, Kan. Watkins, a freshman Kansas congressman who had listed a UPS Inc. store as his residence on a voter registration, was criminally charged Tuesday, July 14, 2020, with four crimes, including unlawful voting. (AP Photo/John Hanna, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TOPEKA, Kan. – 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.