Former Florida GOP legislator pleads guilty to Covid relief fraud charges

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

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

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

According to a new court filing, Harding, 35, acknowledged 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 subsequently made three transfers each involving more than $10,000 to his joint bank account, to pay his credit card, and into a bank account linked to a business entity, court documents show.

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

"Mr. Harding made the best decision available to him under the circumstances to protect his family and his future," Harding’s lawyer, Peg O’Connor, said in a statement Tuesday. "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."

The Trump and Biden administrations distributed about $5 trillion in Covid relief funds. Figures from the Government Accountability Office show that at least $2 billion in Covid relief fraud has been recovered; some experts have estimated that coronavirus fraud could be more than a quarter of a trillion dollars.

Harding sponsored a measure in the Florida House prohibiting “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s primary schools. The legislation, known to its critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, was signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Harding faces a maximum of 20 years in prison for the wire fraud charge, 10 years for money laundering and five more years for making false statements.

Sentencing was scheduled for July 25 in Gainesville.

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