Ex-Florida GOP lawmaker who sponsored so-called 'Don't Say Gay' bill sentenced to prison

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A federal judge on Thursday sentenced to prison a former Florida state legislator who catapulted to national attention for being the sponsor of a bill barring classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity that was called by its critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Former Rep. Joe Harding (R-Williston), who plead guilty in March to one count each of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements as part of a scheme to fraudulently obtain a $150,000 federal Covid-19 relief loan, was sentenced to four months in prison.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, who was appointed to the bench by former President Donald Trump, also sentenced Harding to two years of supervised release following his prison sentence. Court records show that Harding is scheduled to surrender to authorities on Jan. 29.

“The theft of any amount of taxpayer funds is inexcusable,” said Jason Coody, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Florida, in a statement. “However, the defendant’s deceptive acts of diverting emergency financial assistance from small businesses during the pandemic is simply beyond the pale. 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.”

Harding was first elected to the state House in 2020 from a north central Florida seat that includes parts of Marion County. He resigned from the Legislature last December, one day after a federal grand jury indictment against him was unsealed.

In an August sentencing memo to the judge, federal prosecutors said that Harding’s contributions to his community were “commendable” but added that “his intentional criminal acts while serving as an elected state representative signify a betrayal of the public’s trust.” Coody concluded that a variance from sentencing guidelines was warranted because Harding repaid the loan and confessed after he was caught but he argued that some prison time was still needed to act as a deterrence.

Authorities accused Harding of using false bank statements for two dormant small businesses to obtain loans from the Small Business Administration during the pandemic. Harding told the SBA that one of the companies, The Vak Shack, for the 12 months prior to Jan. 31, 2020, had four employees and $420,874 in revenue, while Harding Farms had two employees and $392,000 in revenue, according to authorities.

Ryan Chamberlin, a Republican from Belleview, replaced Harding in the state House after winning a five-way GOP primary and then the special election held in May.

Titled "Parental Rights in Education," the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill Harding sponsored was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022. It led to national condemnation from Democrats and LGBTQ supporters and a high profile battle between the governor and the Walt Disney Co., whose CEO at the time criticized the legislation.