Ex-Florida Lawmaker Behind ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law pleads guilty to Fraud Charges

Joseph Harding, the former Florida representative who resigned in December after he was indicted on federal fraud charges, has taken a plea deal from the U.S. Justice Department.

On Tuesday, Harding, who represented part of Marion County in the Florida House of Representatives, entered guilty pleas to one count of wire fraud, one count of money laundering and one count of making false statements. The rest of the counts against him will be dropped.

Harding was indicted by a federal grand jury in December for using two inactive companies to apply for COVID-19 relief loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, getting some $150,000.

From the Department of Justice:

Court documents reflect Harding devised a scheme to defraud the Small Business Administration (SBA) and obtained coronavirus-related small business loans by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promises, and while executing such scheme, caused wire communications to be transmitted in interstate commerce.

Harding also made a false and fraudulent SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) application, in the name of one of his dormant business entities, that he submitted to the SBA.  By this conduct, Harding fraudulently obtained $150,000 in COVID-19 relief funds from the SBA to which he was not entitled.

After obtaining the EIDL proceeds, Harding conducted three monetary transactions each involving more than $10,000 in fraudulently obtained funds: a transfer to his joint bank account, a payment to his credit card, and a transfer into a bank account of a third-party business entity.

At the time, Harding entered a plea of not guilty and said in an email that he repaid the government for the loan money he had gotten, which is reflected in the plea agreement.

Harding was the lead sponsor of the Parental Rights in Education bill, often referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits state educators from talking about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grades and gives parents the ability to sue school districts who violate the measure.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law last year.

Harding faces a maximum term of 20 years in federal prison for the wire fraud charge alone. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison for money laundering and a maximum of five years in prison for false statements.

Sentencing is set for July 25 at 11 a.m. at the federal courthouse in Gainesville, Florida.

 

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