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Former Florida Lawmaker Who Penned “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Sentenced To Prison Over COVID Loan Fraud

By: Aimee Picchi

A former Florida lawmaker who penned the state’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law has been sentenced to prison for wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements in connection with obtaining $150,000 in COVID-19 relief loans. 

Joseph Harding, 36, of Ocala, Florida, will serve four months in federal prison, according to a statement on Thursday from the U.S. attorney’s office in the Northern District of Florida. After his release, Harding will have two years of supervised release.

An attorney for Harding, John Lauro, told CBS MoneyWatch that the $150,000 in loans were repaid to the government prior to the litigation. 

“Joe cooperated completely and did everything he could to make things right,” Lauro said. “These events were, needless to say unfortunate, but Joe is focused on rebuilding his life and his career, and moving forward.”

Harding defrauded the Small Business Administration to obtain COVID relief funds including an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), which he submitted in the name of a business he owned that wasn’t active, the U.S. attorney’s office said. After receiving the money, he used the funds to pay off his credit card and transferred money to his joint bank account, as well as to the account of a third-party business.

“Instead of using thousands of dollars in federal funds to help keep struggling businesses afloat and honest workers employed, he selfishly diverted it for his own personal gain,” said Sherri E. Onks, special agent in charge of the FBI Jacksonville Division, in the statement. 

The Small Business Administration earlier this year estimated that fraudsters may have received more than $200 billion in federal COVID aid intended for small businesses. Because the agency sought to quickly distribute $1.2 trillion in funds through the EIDL and Paycheck Protection programs, it weakened or removed certain requirements designed to ensure only eligible businesses received funds, the SBA Office of Inspector General found.

Harding drew national attention for penning the 2022 “Parental Rights in Education” bill, known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which restricts teachers and school districts from discussing gender identity and topics surrounding sexuality in elementary school classrooms. 

Asked about the bill in a 2022 interview, Harding defended it by saying the law was “empowering parents” and denied accusations that it was discriminatory. He also condemned protesters, some of whom he said were children, for “cussing at lawmakers” over the bill. 

“That should wake us up as parents that that type of behavior … is deemed acceptable for minors to use cuss words,” he said. 

Harding resigned from his lawmaker role in December, a day after he was indicted on charges for COVID loan fraud, according to USA Today.

Harding “egregiously betrayed the public trust by stealing from COVID relief funds meant to help the very people who elected him,” said special agent in charge Brian J. Payne of the IRS Criminal Investigation, Tampa Field Office, in a statement.

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