News (USA)

Don’t Say Gay bill’s author could go to jail for 35 years after guilty plea

Former Florida Rep. Joe Harding (R)
Former Florida Rep. Joe Harding (R) Photo: Campaign Photo

Former Florida state Rep. Joseph Harding (R) could be going to prison for a long time after he pled guilty to committing fraud to get $150,000 of COVID-19 relief funds.

Harding is perhaps best known as the author of Florida’s infamous Don’t Say Gay bill, which banned discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in younger grades and restricted them in older grades. LGBTQ+ advocates said that the law would effectively ban discussions of LGBTQ+ people, force teachers into the closet, and cut LGBTQ+ students off from much-needed support outside of their homes. Supporters of the bill said that anyone who opposed it was a pedophile.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) believes that Harding used “materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promises, and for the purpose of executing such scheme, caused wire communications to be transmitted in interstate commerce” to defraud the Small Business Administration (SBA) of the money. The Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, which the SBA administered, was meant to help small businesses keep from firing workers during the early days of the pandemic.

He allegedly applied for loans by using the names of “dormant business entities,” made fake bank statements, and used money “derived from unlawful activity.”

He allegedly falsely claimed that one of those companies, The Vak Shak Inc., had four employees and earned $420,000 in the year before his December 2020 application for the disaster assistance. In reality, the company didn’t have any business activity in 2019 or 2020. In Februrary 2021, Harding had admitted to federal investigators that he lied on the application.

According to court documents, he paid the SBA $149,000 in restitution in 2021.

Harding resigned from the Florida House of Representatives in December when he was indicted by a grand jury on two counts each of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements. He has now entered a plea of guilty to one count each of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements.

“In pleading guilty, defendant acknowledges that were this case to go to trial, the government would present evidence to support the charges beyond a reasonable doubt,” the plea agreement states.

The charges carry a sentence of up to 35 years in prison. Harding has a sentencing hearing scheduled for July 25 at a federal court in Gainesville, Florida.

Harding’s brother-in-law, Patrick Parker Walsh, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to one charge each of wire fraud and money laundering after his own scheme to fraudulently take COVID relief funds. He was also ordered to repay the SBA $7.8 million in restitution.

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