Author of Florida's 'don't say gay' law indicted on money laundering and fraud charges

592

Republican state Rep. Joe Harding was charged with allegedly trying to defraud the government.

The author of Florida's law banning discussion or instruction on gender identity and sexuality in schools was indicted on Wednesday on six counts related to an alleged plan to fraudulently obtain $150,000 in COVID-related small business loans, the Department of Justice announced.

Republican state Rep. Joe Harding was charged with money laundering, wire fraud, and making false statements, charges that carry a maximum of 35 years in prison combined.

Harding allegedly "made false and fraudulent representations" in an application for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the Small Business Association for two dormant businesses that otherwise would not qualify for the loans, according to the grand jury indictment. Economic Injury Disaster Loans were created during the COVID-19 pandemic to "help small businesses recover from the economic impacts" of pandemic-related closures and mitigation efforts.

Harding said in the loan application that his business entities were active, had more than $400,000 in revenue, and employed four people before the COVID-19 pandemic began, when in fact the companies didn't have any revenue or employees, the indictment alleges.

"Today, I pleaded not guilty to federal charges that state I improperly obtained and used an EIDL loan issued by the Small Business Administration. I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested," Harding wrote in a Facebook post after his indictment. "On advice from counsel, I will be unable to say anything more specific about the legal proceedings until a later date and refer any questions or concerns related to this matter to my attorney."

Harding is a co-author of the "Parental Rights in Education" law in Florida, which bans teachers from both teaching and discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. Opponents have dubbed it the "Don't Say Gay" law, saying that, as written, it could ban LGBTQ teachers from having photos of their partners on their desks.

"Only a parent should decide who should teach human sexuality to their child," Harding said in a promotional video touting his role in getting the law passed.

"They're calling my bill discrimination, but exposing your kids, kindergarten through third grade, to complex sexual choices without informing the parents. That is not education, that is just manipulation," Harding adds.

After his indictment, Florida House Speaker Paul Renner announced he removed Harding from his committee assignments while the case is ongoing.

"After consultation with Representative Harding regarding his indictment, I am temporarily removing him from his committee assignments to allow him time to focus on this matter," Renner said in the statement. "In America, we adhere to the rule of law, and as such, Representative Harding is presumed innocent and will have the opportunity to plead his case before a court."

Harding was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2020. In 2022, he ran unopposed for a second term.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.