‘Don’t say gay’ Florida GOP lawmaker indicted on COVID relief fraud charges

The Republican Florida lawmaker behind the state’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill was indicted on fraud charges Tuesday for allegedly participating in a scheme to defraud the government of COVID-19 relief funds. 

State Rep. Joe Harding is facing two counts of wire fraud, two counts of engaging in monetary transactions with funds derived from unlawful activity, and two counts of making false statements to the Small Business Administration related to the scheme, according to the federal grand jury indictment against him. 

Prosecutors accuse Harding of using dormant companies to apply for more than $150,000 in pandemic-related relief loans from the Small Business Administration between Dec. 1, 2020 and March 1, 2021  and using fake bank statements as supporting documentation on his loan applications. 

The 35-year-old state representative from Ocala was elected to the Florida House in 2020 and sponsored legislation banning discussions related to gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools up until the third grade.

State Rep. Joe Harding was indicted on fraud charges for allegedly participating in a scheme to defraud the government of COVID-19 relief funds.
AP/Phelan M. Ebenhac

The legislation, derided as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by liberals, sparked protests and was opposed by Disney, Central Florida’s largest employer. The bill was signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in March of 2022.

Harding, who is free on bond, will be tried at a federal courthouse in Gainesville, Florida, before District Judge Allen Winsor in a trial scheduled to begin early next year. 

The charges against Harding carry a maximum penalty of 70 years in prison. 

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