The disgraced former Republican Florida lawmaker behind the state’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements related to a scheme to defraud the government of COVID-19 relief funds.
Joe Harding, who resigned from the Florida legislature in December after his indictment, faces up to 35 years in prison for his crimes.
The US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida said Harding fraudulently obtained $150,000 in COVID-19 relief funds from the Small Business Administration after making false statements on an Economic Injury Disaster Loan application between Dec. 1, 2020 and March 1, 2021.
Harding used fake bank statements as supporting documentation on his loan applications, which were made in the name of one of his dormant business entities, which had no employees at the time, federal prosecutors said.
The 35-year-old ex-state rep from Ocala was elected to the Florida House in 2020 and sponsored legislation banning discussions related to gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools up until the third grade.
The legislation, derided by liberals as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, sparked protests and was opposed by Disney, Central Florida’s largest employer.
The bill was signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in March of 2022.
After Harding fraudulently obtained the EIDL proceeds, federal prosecutors say he made three monetary transactions each involving more than $10,000 in ill-gotten 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.
Harding’s sentencing hearing is scheduled to take place at the US Courthouse in Gainesville, Fla., on July 25.
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