Congressional candidate Steve Watkins inflated his role as a defense contractor in the Middle East by telling voters he owned a company he built from scratch.
“I got out of the military, started a small business and grew it from three people to 470 people. So I know what it’s like to have to sweat it and work to make payroll, to not take any salary so you can make ends meet,” the Kansas Republican told a Miami County GOP 2nd District Candidate Forum in March.
In June, at a Neosho County GOP meeting, Watkins repeated a similar story: “I started an engineering and security company. It was a paramilitary company that did work strictly for the U.S. government. 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.”
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And on Twitter a month later, Watkins wrote that he “owned an engineering and securities company” when he was in the Middle East. “I grew that outfit from three people to 450 people. There were times when I did not take pay to make sure my employees could make ends meet.”
That company, Watkins’ campaign told The Star, was VIAP Inc. — a wholly owned subsidiary of Versar Inc., a global project management firm based in the Washington, D.C., area.
But records and interviews with company officials show that company existed years before he was hired on as a consultant, a Kansas City Star investigation has found. And Versar’s chief executive officer at the time gives credit for building VIAP to another person.
Asked by The Star about his involvement last week, Watkins acknowledged he didn’t own VIAP.
“I didn’t own it, no ... when I say I helped start and grow, it was operational,” Watkins said. “There were processes, systems that didn’t exist and I helped to start and create those processes and systems and products and services that we provided clients.”
Bryan Piligra, Watkins’ campaign spokesman, said the candidate has “never intentionally claimed” he owned VIAP.
On the campaign trail, Watkins repeatedly has cited his experience starting his own small business in the Middle East as one of his assets as a future congressman. A political newcomer who has never held elective office, Watkins is vying with Democrat Paul Davis for a fiercely contested open seat in Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District, which includes the state capital Topeka.
The Star could locate no public records showing that Watkins had any ownership stake in VIAP or Versar.
Corporate records and interviews with former Versar executives show that VIAP was spun out of its parent company long before Watkins became involved with Versar as a consultant in 2004.
VIAP was founded under a different name, Versar Services, in 1997, according to Versar’s general counsel and incorporation documents filed in Delaware. At that time, Watkins would have been a student at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. He graduated in 1999.
Watkins’ federal financial disclosure forms, required for all congressional candidates, don’t mention VIAP as an asset he owns.
The forms show salary payments from Versar listed under earned income: $27,819 in 2018 and $45,216 in 2017.
Under positions, Watkins lists himself as a consultant for Versar Inc. He gives a description of his duties as “project manager services.”
Theodore M. Prociv was CEO of Versar Inc. from July 2000 to February 2010, and president of the company from 1999 to 2010.
Asked if Watkins owned and built VIAP, the now-retired Prociv said, “He’s nobody that I’ve heard of, ” adding that had Watkins led efforts “he would have been on my list.”
Prociv said that VIAP, formerly known as Versar Services, had been spun off to shed some risk of liability because of work in conflict zones.
Versar at the time was a public company, issuing common stock and filing quarterly and annual reports for shareholders with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Watkins’ name doesn’t appear in any of the regulatory filings as an executive or director of foreign operations.
Prociv said he secured VIAP’s first contract himself — with the Air Force — and selected a man named Bill Johnson to run VIAP.
“He created his own staff, his own team,” Prociv said of Johnson. “He’s an ex-Navy SEAL with engineering experience. He put the whole thing together ... If I gave anybody credit for building (VIAP) it’s Bill Johnson, and Jeff Wagonhurst for making it happen from the home office.”
Johnson served as Versar’s senior vice president for international operations from 2004 to 2008 and as founder, president and CEO of VIAP from 2005 to 2008, according to his Linked In account. He could not be reached for comment.
Wagonhurst is now the president and chief operating office of Versar. He declined to comment on what he called a former employee.
McClatchy reached out to a number of former board members and none recalled Watkins as an owner or founder of VIAP. Most had no memory of him at all.
One, Robert L. Durfee, the co-founder of Versar Inc., took issue with the suggestion that VIAP was built from scratch.
“VIAP wasn’t built. It was spun off from the parent company,” Durfee said.
Told that Prociv didn’t recall Watkins, the now-retired Durfee added, “Frankly I don’t either.”
George J. Anastos was at Versar from 1996 to 2005, serving as vice president of engineering and construction. He too said he doesn’t recall Watkins.
Stoney Cox served as president of VIAP from from March 2008 through 2010. He said in an interview that he was brought in to run VIAP after the man running it was let go and went back to the Philippines.
VIAP had already been created by the time he got there, Cox said.
He said Watkins definitely wasn’t an owner, and he has no memory of him. But he said the name Watkins sounded familiar.
“I don’t remember him at all, but I will say the name has some recognition,” Cox said. “It’s a name that sort of rings a bell.”
Watkins insisted he did meet Cox. His campaign said Cox and Watkins were in a meeting together in Baghdad.
Asked why Versar and VIAP executives and board members didn’t remember him, Watkins’ campaign said VIAP was operationally “very independent” of Versar, and Versar is not a small company.
“Steve worked in Afghanistan and Iraq, only visited the corporate office in the U.S. once, in 2004,” said Piligra, Watkins’ spokesman, in a statement.
What is clear is that Watkins did in fact work for Versar/VIAP in Iraq and Afghanistan during harrowing times, after serving a tour of duty as a general engineer with the Army Reserve in Afghanistan from February to August 2004.
Watkins began working for Versar as a consultant in 2004, said Nayna M. Diehl, Versar’s corporate counsel and director for contracts.
He was a consultant for the entire time he was involved with Versar, except for a period from February 2011 to March 2012, when Watkins was an employee, Diehl said. Watkins then returned to working for Versar in a consulting capacity.
“Mr. Watkins’ work throughout the time he was involved with Versar helped to grow our international operations in those countries,” Diehl said.
A former military colleague who later joined forces again with Watkins at Versar confirmed portions of what the candidate says on the campaign trail, although he stopped short of saying Watkins had owned VIAP or built the company himself.
At the request of the Watkins’ campaign, Brian Arbuckle agreed to share some general factual details as a co-worker of Watkins. He stressed his response was coming directly from him and should not be construed or implied to be an official statement from Versar or a position of Versar.
Arbuckle serves as vice president of engineering and construction management at Versar.
“Mr. Watkins started working for Versar in Iraq in 2004 where he and a small team started, developed and grew our international operations in conflict/post conflict environments under the name VIAP,” Arbuckle said in an email.
“While deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan for Versar, he led teams comprised of hundreds of professionals that provided engineering and construction quality assurance services across both countries,” Arbuckle said of Watkins in an email. “He was responsible for the safety, security, quality, schedule, and cost of his team members in these very dangerous locations.”
When The Star initially reached out to the Watkins campaign in August to ask for the name of the paramilitary company Watkins spoke about on the campaign trail, Piligra, Watkins’ spokesman, identified that firm as VIAP.
“Steve has had remarkable success after his service in the U.S. Army, when he helped start and grow a three-man engineering and security outfit to over 470 people operating in two war zones,” Piligra said in an emailed statement on Sept. 10.
“The company was a wholly owned subsidiary of Versar Inc. and went by the name VIAP,” Piligra said.
Watkins’ campaign clarified on Friday after new inquiries by The Star that the candidate did not have any ownership stake in VIAP.
“He helped start and grow VIAP, operationally,” Piligra wrote Friday in response to emailed questions from McClatchy.
Piligra called Watkins “a key leader during Versar’s beginning phase of International operations” who “helped design and oversee initial products, services, and various business operations.”
“Many times, he’s stated that VIAP was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Versar,” Piligra said. “He’s careful to describe that he helped start and grow VIAP.”
Piligra also explained that Watkins did not waive a salary while working for Versar to make sure his employees could get paid, as the candidate had suggested to voters.
“Steve did take a salary during that time; however, he did not take his budgeted salary while he was building a separate start-up, GoMarket.com, so that there was enough money to pay his people,” Piligra said. “In addition, Steve also refused a salary while he worked for Veterans Moving Company, LLC., a small business that employed U.S. military veterans as home movers, to ensure that other veterans would be paid.”
Watkins registered GoMarket.com in Alaska’s state registry in June 2012 as a foreign business corporation, meaning an out-of-state company, according to public records.
The startup had no employees.
“Steve opted for a subcontracted/consultancy model, over an employer-employee structure,” Piligra said.
In the Alaska filings, Watkins listed himself as registered agent and president shareholder and noted that GoMarket.com’s business purpose was “to sell consumer goods online.”
“Steve wrote the business plan and designed all aspects of operations,” Piligra said. “Steve also provided the seed money and he hired the consultants and subcontractors that built the online infrastructure.”
A search of the digital fingerprint on the web for the domain name www.gomarket.com shows it was created in 2001 and registered to a South Korean citizen.
The existing domain was then registered on Feb. 8, 2012, to Steve Watkins, with an address in Topeka, Kansas.
Two days later the domain registration moved to the web hosting company GoDaddy.com and its Domains By Proxy service, which gives domain owners a layer of anonymity. The domain was later transferred to Amazon’s web hosting platform.
The GoMarket.com website is now defunct. An archived version of the site from 2013 lists numerous items for sale in both English and Arabic, including an Ivanka Trump handbag for $180 and a Kenneth Cole watch for $85, among other products such as perfume and sunglasses.
The State of Alaska revoked GoMarket’s status as a foreign corporation in October 2016 for failure to file required documents.
“As is the case with most startups, it did not succeed so Steve closed it,” Piligra said.
Piligra also clarified that Watkins’ role in Veterans Moving Company LLC, or VMC, was as a consultant, not as an owner.
“While Steve did not have an ownership stake in VMC,” Piligra said, “he was one of the primary consultants during the initial start-up phases.”
Watkins ultimately refused pay for his consulting services for VMC, Piligra said.