Sponsor of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law accused of COVID-19 loan fraud

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida lawmaker who sponsored the law that critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law was indicted on charges of defrauding a federal coronavirus loan program, prosecutors said Wednesday.

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According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida, state Rep. Joseph Harding, 35, of Williston, was indicted on six counts, including two counts of wire fraud, two counts of money laundering and two counts of making false statements.

Harding, a Republican who represents District 24 in Florida, is serving his second term in the state’s House of Representatives. He is best known for sponsoring the Parental Rights in Education law that has been called the “Don’t Say Gay” law, The Associated Press reported.

The law forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, along with material that is not deemed age-appropriate, according to the news organization.

The Republican-led Legislature passed the bill this year and it was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis. It took effect on July 1.

According to the indictment, Harding committed two acts of wire fraud against the Small Business Administration, and by obtaining COVID-19-related small business loans “through false and fraudulent pretenses” between Dec. 1, 2020, and March 1, 2021.

The indictment accuses Harding of making fraudulent applications for Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loans by using the names of dormant businesses. Prosecutors also allege that Harding obtained fraudulently created bank statements for one of the businesses to use as documentation for one of his loan applications.

According to Politico, the two companies used on loan applications were The Vak Shack, which according to its website, sells discounted vacuum sealer bags; and Harding Farms, a 46-acre horse and cattle farm facility. Both companies had not been active in Florida from May 2017 to December 2020, Politico reported.

The indictment alleges that Harding obtained and attempted to obtain more than $150,000 in funds from the SBA.

By this conduct, the indictment alleges that Harding “fraudulently obtained and attempted to obtain more than $150,000 in funds from the SBA to which he was not entitled.”

In a statement, Harding said he was innocent of the charges.

“Today, I pleaded not guilty to federal charges that state I improperly obtained and used an EIDL loan issued by the Small Business Administration. I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested,” Harding said. “On advice from counsel, I will be unable to say anything more specific about the legal proceedings until a later date and refer any questions or concerns related to this matter to my attorney. I ask that you keep me and my family in your prayers as we work for a fair and just resolution. Thank you, and my God bless you.”

Harding has lost his committee assignments for the upcoming legislative term, according to Florida Politics.

“After consultation with Representative Harding regarding his indictment, I am temporarily removing him from his committee assignments to allow him time to focus on this matter,” Speaker Paul Renner said in a written statement. “In America, we adhere to the rule of law, and as such, Rep. Harding is presumed innocent and will have the opportunity to plead his case before a court. Since the indictment does not relate to any aspect of his legislative duties, any further questions should be directed to his legal counsel.”

DeSantis cannot remove a lawmaker from office, even if they are arrested, according to Florida Politics. The Florida Constitution states that “each house shall be the sole judge of the qualifications” of members. To expel a lawmaker, each chamber needs a two-thirds majority vote.

Harding will appear in court on Jan. 11, 2023, in Gainesville, according to prosecutors.