Ex-Florida legislator, who sponsored so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, pleads guilty to fraud
TALLAHASSEE — The former Republican Florida lawmaker, who authored the controversial law dubbed "Don't Say Gay," pleaded guilty Tuesday to wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements in connection with defrauding the federal coronavirus loan program for small businesses.
Former state Rep. Joe Harding, R-Williston, faces up to 35 years in prison, according to a United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida press release. His sentencing hearing is slated for July 25.
Harding, 35 and first elected into office in 2020, resigned a day after his indictment in early December. He had initially pleaded not guilty.
Harding indicted:Florida legislator, who sponsored ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, indicted on federal fraud charges
Harding resigns:Florida legislator, who sponsored ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, resigns amid federal fraud charges
Harding was the House sponsor of the Parental Rights in Education law, which restricts classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3.
Even before the law went into effect last summer, opponents said the legislation and its surrounding rhetoric contributed to a hostile environment for LGBTQ people.
It has inspired even stricter measures to be pitched during this year's legislative session, including one that increases the age range of the law to the eighth grade and bars teachers from referring to someone by a pronoun that doesn’t correspond to their sex assigned at birth.
The United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida says Harding applied for a Small Business Administration COVID-19 loan using one of his dormant businesses — making false statements about its employees and revenue, according to court filings — and ended up with $150,000 in relief funds.
He then transferred fraudulently-obtained money into his joint bank account, a credit card payment and a bank account of a third-party business, according to the press release.
Harding paid back $149,000 to the SBA in 2021, according to court filings.
USA Today Network-Florida government accountability reporter Douglas Soule is based in Tallahassee, Fla. He can be reached at DSoule@gannett.com. Twitter: @DouglasSoule