Florida ex-member pleads guilty to fraud charges

Florida ex-member pleads guilty to fraud charges

A former Florida state representative who sponsored legislation banning classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the state's primary schools pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges of fraudulently obtaining tens of thousands of dollars from a federal Covid-relief program.

At a hearing in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Republican Joseph Harding entered a guilty plea to a single count of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements, stemming from a six-count indictment that was returned to a federal grand jury in December.

The guilty plea was reversed before Judge Allen Winsor, a reversal of an earlier not guilty plea by Harding, who resigned from his House seat after he was indicted.

Harding, 35, admitted to making materially false statements when he submitted an application for an economic injury disaster loan in December 2020 for a company that had no business activity and was dormant at the time.

Harding fraudulently obtained $150,000 in Covid relief funds from the Small Business Administration, and then transferred more than $10,000 to his joint bank account, and into a bank account linked to a business entity, court documents show.

Harding, who was elected in 2020, previously said in a statement on Facebook that he had repaid every penny of the loan and that a time would come when he could tell his story.

Harding's lawyer Peg O Connor said in a statement Tuesday that Harding made the best decision under the circumstances to protect his family and his future. We look forward to presenting information at sentencing that will give a fuller picture and give some insight into who Mr. Harding is as a person. The Trump and Biden administrations distributed $5 trillion in Covid relief funds. The figures from the Government Accountability Office show that at least $2 billion has been recovered from Covid-relief fraud, but some experts believe that coronaviruses could be more than a quarter of a trillion dollars.

Harding was a member of the Florida House who sponsored a measure prohibiting classroom discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity in the state's primary schools. The legislation, known as the Don't Say Gay bill, was later signed into law by Republican Gov. Harding faces a maximum of 20 years of imprisonment for wire fraud, 10 years for money laundering and an additional five years for making false statements.

He is scheduled to have a sentencing hearing on July 25 in Gainesville.