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Florida lawmaker behind ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill pleads guilty to COVID-19 emergency loan fraud


FILE – Florida state Rep. Joe Harding listens during a Local Administration and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee hearing in a legislative session on Jan. 13, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. Harding has been indicted for defrauding a loan program offered by the federal government to help small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, officials said Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

The former Florida lawmaker who was one of the original sponsors of the state’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law has admitted to fraudulently obtaining $150,000 in COVID-19 loan relief.

Joseph Harding, 35, of Williston, Florida, pleaded guilty on Monday to one count each of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements, the Justice Department announced in a press release Tuesday.

According to the statement of facts, which provides the basis for Harding’s plea, the now-former representative applied in December 2020 — around nine months into the worldwide COVID-19 panic — for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) on behalf of a small business that Harding knew was inactive.

“HARDING made materially false statements when he submitted this application,” the statement of facts says. “For example, the VAK SHACK did not have any business activity during 2019 or 2020, and HARDING knew that this business entity had been dormant during that time.”

Harding claimed, however, that the Vak Shack business had gross revenues of nearly $421,000 in 2019, and that it had four employees. Based on these misrepresentations, Harding obtained an EIDL loan for the Vak Shack business.

Within two months, according to prosecutors, Harding transferred more than $50,000 of that loan money, splitting it between a bank account in his name, a credit card payment, and a transfer to the bank account of an oil company.

By the end of February, federal investigators had caught on.

“On or about February 25, 2021, Harding gave a non-custodial, recorded interview with federal investigators in which he admitted that the VAK SHACK EIDL application contained false information in order to obtain the loan,” the statement of facts says, noting that shortly after that interview, Harding repaid $50,000 of the loan. He repaid the rest of it in April, according to the court filing.

Harding resigned after his arrest in December 2022. A special election for his replacement will be held in May.

He was first elected to the Florida legislature in 2020 and had made a name for himself as one of the early sponsors of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill — officially titled the “Parental Rights in Education” bill — which severely restricts the way in which public school teachers can discuss issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bill, which Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in March 2022, has been the subject of multiple lawsuits in the state from students, parents, and teachers who say the law subjects them to discrimination and censorship.

According to the plea agreement, Harding faces up to 20 years in prison for the wire fraud charge, 10 years for money laundering, and five for making false statements. He also faces possible financial penalties.

U.S. District Judge Allen C. Winsor, a Donald Trump appointee, set sentencing for July 25. Harding remains free on $10,000 bond while awaiting sentencing.

You can read the plea agreement here and the statement of facts here.

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