Don’t Say Gay lawmaker faces lengthy jail term after pleading guilty to fraud charges

One of the politicians behind Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law has pleaded guilty to fraudulently taking $150,000 (approximately £ 122,600) in COVID-19 relief funds.

Associated Press reported that court records show Republican Joe Harding pleaded guilty in the Gainesville federal court to wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements in a scheme to obtain pandemic-related business loans.

The 35-year-old faces up to 35 years in prison.

As a House Representative in the Florida Legislature at the time, he was one of the sponsors of the Parental Rights in Education legislation – better known as Don’t Say Gay – governor Ron DeSantis went on to enact in 2022.

Harding resigned from state politics in December, a day after federal prosecutors announced his indictment.

The court documents reportedly show Harding made false statements to the Small Business Administration while applying for COVID-19 relief funds for a dormant business entity.

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Ultimately, he obtained $150,000 through a loan programme designed to give small businesses experiencing temporary revenue loss, some economic relief.

Prosecutors say Harding made three transactions after receiving the funds: a payment to his credit card, a transfer to a joint bank account and a transfer to a third-party business entity’s bank account.

All were for more than $10,000 (£8,100).

Money used to ‘protect his family and future’

According to NBC News, Harding previously said in a Facebook post he had repaid “every penny” of the loan and a time would come for him to tell his story.

In a statement to the news outlet, Harding’s lawyer, Peg O’Connor, said her client had “made the best decision available to him under the circumstances, to protect his family and his future”.

She added: “We look forward to presenting information at sentencing that will provide a fuller picture and give some insight into who Mr. Harding is as a person.”

Harding’s sentencing is scheduled for 25 July.

Serving less than one full term, the former politician made a name for himself in the Florida House of Representatives by sponsoring the Don’t Say Gay law.

In addition, he filed an amendment that would have also seen the law force teachers to out LGBTQ+ students. However, it was withdrawn before it could be debated or included in the bill.

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