The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently aired a tough ad against Republican congressional candidate Steve Watkins, who is locked in a competitive race with Democrat Paul Davis for the House seat in Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District.
The ad is based on a Kansas City Star investigation that found Watkins did not own and build a business from the ground up when he was in the Middle East, as he had claimed several times on the campaign trail.
The ad’s text:
"Steve Watkins caught lying again. For months, Watkins bragged to voters that he built his own company from scratch, but it was all a lie."
It is accurate that Watkins did not build and own the company— VIAP Inc. — as he has been quoted.
However, the Democrats' ad takes the rhetoric too far saying it all was a lie. He did oversee an arm of the organization that had just started, and grew that outfit to several hundred people.
On more than one occasion on the campaign trail, Watkins has said that he started a small business and grew it from "three people to 470 people."
"I started an engineering and security company, paramilitary company, that did work strictly for the U.S. government," Watkins said during one June GOP meeting. "This was in Iraq and Afghanistan. We grew to a number of countries. We grew from three people to 470 with me as the principal during that growth period."
The business he was referring to is VIAP Inc., a spinoff of Versar Inc., a global project management firm based in Washington. Watkins didn’t own the company, but he did appear to work there during a high-growth phase.
Versar International Inc. was formed in January 1997, according to incorporation filings in Delaware. Watkins graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point in 1999.
Watkins’ federal financial disclosure forms also don’t list VIAP as an asset but do show him earning income from Versar, under which he is listed as a consultant.
According to the forms, he received $27,819 as earned income from the company in 2018 and $45,216 in 2017.
The Star spoke with several Versar company officials who did not recall or remember Watkins. One Versar CEO from 2000 to 2010, Theodore M. Provic, told the paper he’s "nobody that I’ve heard of."
Watkins actually joined the existing company as a contractor in 2004, according to company officials.
Watkins did, in fact, work for VIAP in Afghanistan and Iraq during dangerous times and helped grow his outfit from a small team to hundreds, according to Brian Arbuckle, a former military colleague of Watkins.
Arbuckle, who is is now vice president of engineering and construction management at Versar, sent a response to the Star at the request of the Watkins’ campaign. PolitiFact obtained a copy, which Arbuckle stressed is not an official statement from Versar.
He confirmed that VIAP (which stands for Versar International Assistance Projects) was a newly developed name and business line that Versar created between 2004 and 2005, when Watkins joined the team.
"The name and organizational structure were new to Versar and were developed by a small team of professionals that set up and grew our business in conflict/post conflict environments," Arbuckle wrote. "The initial core team included me, Steve Watkins, and three other leaders."
He said that Watkins started working for Versar in Iraq in 2004 where he and a small team started, developed and grew international operations under the name VIAP and led teams of hundreds of professionals that provided engineering and construction quality assurance services in the Middle East.
Bryan Piligra, Watkins’ campaign spokesman said in an email that Watkins helped form a three-man engineering and security outfit to over 470 people operating in two war zones.
"Steve has said countless times to media and voters throughout the district that the firm was a wholly-owned subsidiary of a publicly traded, U.S. company," Piligra wrote. "He helped start it and grow it, operationally. Prior to the involvement of Steve and two other individuals, it did not exist from an operational standpoint."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Watkins’ lied to voters about building a company from scratch.
We found that Watkins did not own or build the company, VIAP, from the ground up in the Middle East, as he claimed to voters in the past.
He did, however, oversee and expand a small team into hundreds during his time in Iraq and Afghanistan under a new arm of Versar.
Watkins did exaggerate his background with the company, but he did work there when it was growing. The DCCC says it was "all a lie," but that’s an exaggeration, too. We rate the DCCC’s claim Half True.