Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ legislator to serve prison time on fraud charges

Former Florida state representative Joe Harding, who wrote the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law has been sentenced to four months behind bars on fraud charges.

Harding pleaded guilty to wire fraud, money laundering a making false statements back in March, and was finally delivered his sentence this week.

Prosecutors say that the former “Don’t Say Gay” legislator attempted to fraudulently obtain a federal COVID-19 relief loan of $150,000 under the names of companies that no longer operated, and put the funds directly towards his credit card debt and his personal accounts.

Representative Joe Harding, sponsor of Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' law
Former representative Joe Harding will serve four months behind bars. (Facebook/ Joe Harding)

On Thursday (20 October), US District Judge Allen Winsor sentenced Harding to four months in federal prison followed by two years of probation.

Commenting on the sentencing, Jason Coody, attorney for the Northern District of Florida said, per Politico: “The theft of any amount of taxpayer funds is inexcusable.

“However, the defendant’s deceptive acts of diverting emergency financial assistance from small businesses during the pandemic is simply beyond the pale. 

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“Today’s sentence both punishes the defendant’s criminal conduct and should serve as a significant deterrent to others who would selfishly steal from their fellow citizens to unlawfully enrich themselves.”

The maximum term of imprisonment for wire fraud is 20 years, while the maximum for money laundering is 10 years, and the same for making false statements is five years.

A protester holding a "Say Gay" sign at a protest against Florida's Don't Say Gay bill.
Joe Harding wrote the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law. (Getty)

Harding made national headlines in 2022 after drawing up the deeply controversial “Parental Rights in Education” aka “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

The bill originally banned public school teachers from teaching students from kindergarten to third grade about gender identity or sexual orientation.

Earlier this year, Florida lawmakers voted to expand the bill to cover students up the eighth grade.

The bill also requires school staff and pupils to address students by the pronouns that correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth. Additionally, it allows parents more power to challenge any books and materials that they deem inappropriate for the classroom.

Harding’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was signed into law by Florida Governor and 2024 presidential election Republican favourite Ron DeSantis.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis
Ron DeSantis signed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill into law last year. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Since introduced, it has drawn intense criticism from Democrats, the LGBTQ+ community and its allies, and the Walt Disney Co. 

Still, shortly after “Don’t Say Gay” was signed into law, more than a dozen states proposed copycat bills.

Harding was elected to Florida’s House of Representatives in 2020, but resigned in December 2022, right after a federal grand jury indictment against him was unsealed.

Ahead of the “Don’t Say Gay” legislator’s sentencing, prosecutors said in a memo to  Judge Allen Winsor that, while Harding’s work for his community was “commendable”, his “intentional criminal acts while serving as an elected state representative signify a betrayal of the public’s trust.”

Prosecutors also noted that it was important Harding’s sentence served as an example of what happens to those who defraud government programs that are intended to help people out of distressing situations.

Speaking ahead of the sentencing, IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Brian J. Payne said, per Advocate: “Mr. Harding egregiously betrayed the public trust by stealing from COVID relief funds meant to help the very people who elected him.

“Greed and public service should never meet, but when they do, we stand ready to ensure bad actors are held responsible for their actions.”

Harding is scheduled to begin his sentence on 29 January 2024.