A federal grand jury has indicted Florida state representative Joe Harding, the Republican lawmaker who authored the “don’t say gay” bill, for Covid business relief fraud and money laundering, the justice department announced on Wednesday.
Between December 2020 and March 2021, Harding, 35, committed wire fraud when he took part in a “scheme to defraud” the Small Business Administration and obtained Covid-related relief funds for small businesses under false pretenses, according to a federal indictment.
Harding, whose biography lists him as a “home healthcare executive” and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, allegedly “fraudulently obtained” more than $150,000 in funds from the Small Business Administration.
Harding’s home health agency is located in Ocala. After state redistricting created a new electorate, Harding moved to Ocala to be closer to his job and ran for House district 24, according to Florida Politics. He authored the Parental Rights in Education Act, which prohibits educators from talking about matters of gender and sexual identity in schools, a move that advocates worried would “erase” LGBTQ+ students and their history.
Despite uproar and concern from teachers, parents, students, lawmakers and advocates alike, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law in March, sparking a chilling groundswell of similar legislation throughout the country. At least 137 bills in 36 different states have introduced educational gag order bills in 2022, according to an August report by PEN America.
Harding won reelection in that new district in November. But his political future is now uncertain. In a statement, Florida House speaker Paul Renner told Politico that Harding was temporarily removed from committee assignments “to allow him time to focus on this matter”.
Harding, who was released on bond after a preliminary hearing on Tuesday, told Politico in a statement that he “fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested”. If convicted, Harding faces up to 20 years in federal prison for wire fraud, 10 years for money laundering, and five years for making false statements.