A Florida state lawmaker known for sponsoring legislation that regulates classroom talk about sexual orientation and gender identity was indicted by a grand jury for allegedly trying to illicitly obtain more than $150,000 in federal pandemic relief funds, the Justice Department said Wednesday.
Florida state Rep. Joseph B. Harding (R), 35, was accused of making fraudulent applications to the Small Business Administration using the names of dormant business entities, prosecutors said. Harding is also accused of submitting “fraudulently created bank statements” in the applications, the Justice Department said. He faces a six-count indictment of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements.
Prosecutors said Harding falsified the number of employees and gross revenue for the two entities, the Vak Shack and Harding Farms. “Further, Harding falsely represented that these business entities were active businesses during 2019 and 2020 when in fact they were not,” the indictment said.
The Vak Shack had no employees and zero revenue in the 12 months leading up to Jan. 31, 2020 — the date officials marked as the day the coronavirus pandemic began. Harding knowingly lied to the federal government by claiming the entity had four employees and had earned about $420,000 in that period, prosecutors said.
Harding Farms, likewise, had no employees and zero revenue in the 12 months leading up to Jan. 31, 2020, prosecutors said. But Harding said in his application that the entity had two workers and had earned $392,000, prosecutors said.
In January and February 2021, he made illegal bank transfers of $30,000 and $15,000, respectively, prosecutors added.
A trial is scheduled for Jan. 11, authorities said. The maximum prison terms for wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements are 20 years, 10 years and five years, respectively. Harding could not immediately be reached for comment early Thursday. He has said he fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators, Politico reported. Harding has pleaded not guilty.
Florida House Speaker Paul Renner (R) said in a statement that he was temporarily removing Harding from his committee assignments. “Representative Harding is presumed innocent and will have the opportunity to plead his case before a court.”
Harding’s case is one of hundreds involving the misuse of federal programs and aid intended to help cities, businesses and individuals weather the coronavirus pandemic. The $5 trillion in funds helped the country avoid economic disaster but created room for fraud and abuse, while making inflation worse, The Washington Post has reported.
The Small Business Administration has previously been accused of barely reviewing applications for coronavirus relief funds early in the pandemic and directing employees to approve applications that had obvious signs of fraud.
Harding is known for his sponsorship of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, which its critics call the “don’t say gay” law. It prohibits instruction or classroom discussion about LGBTQ topics for students from kindergarten to the third grade. For older children, it says that teachers must discuss sexual-minority issues in an “age appropriate” manner.