Sponsor of 'Don't Say Gay' Bill Accused of COVID Relief Fraud

Florida state Rep. Joe Harding indicted on wire fraud, money laundering charges
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 8, 2022 8:35 AM CST
'Don't Say Gay' Lawmaker Accused of COVID Relief Fraud
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.   (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

The Florida lawmaker who sponsored what became known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill is in legal trouble deeper than anything he would face for discussing sexual orientation in the state's primary schools. State Rep. Joe Harding, a Republican who represents a district south of Gainesville, is accused of fraudulently trying to obtain more than $150,000 in federal COVID relief loans, NBC reports. According to a statement from the Department of Justice, Harding allegedly "made false representations in supporting loan documentation, in the names of dormant business entities" and "obtained fraudulently created bank statements." He has been indicted on charges of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements.

The indictment unsealed Wednesday alleges that Harding, 35, used the names of two companies that had been dormant since 2017, Vak Shack Inc. and Harding Farms, when he applied to the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, Politico reports. When Harding applied for the loans, he allegedly opened new bank accounts and filed paperwork to make the companies appear active. In the loan applications, he allegedly falsely claimed that the businesses had a total of around $800,000 revenue and had employed six people over the previous 12 months. The indictment says he received around $45,000 in loans in early 2021, per NBC.

Harding was released on bond after a preliminary hearing Tuesday. "I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested," he said in a statement Wednesday, per the AP. He said he had pleaded not guilty. His trial begins on Jan. 11 in Gainesville and he could face a maximum of 35 years in prison if found guilty on all counts. Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, a Republican, said he is temporarily removing Harding from committee assignments "to allow him time to focus on this matter."

(Read more Florida stories.)

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