Sponsor of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law resigns amid accusations of COVID-19 loan fraud

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida lawmaker who sponsored the law that critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law resigned Thursday, one day after he was indicted on charges of defrauding a federal coronavirus loan program.

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State Rep. Joseph Harding, 35, of Williston, was indicted on six counts, including two counts of wire fraud, two counts of money laundering and two counts of making false statements, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida.

In a statement on Thursday, Harding announced his resignation as a representative, saying that “I love people, and I love Florida.”

“Today, I am resigning my position for the same two reasons,” Harding said. “I believe in Floridians and want what is best for them, and I believe their leaders need not be encumbered by distractions that are mine alone.”

Harding, a Republican who represents District 24 in Florida, is serving his second term in the state’s House of Representatives. He is best known for sponsoring the Parental Rights in Education law that has been called the “Don’t Say Gay” law, The Associated Press reported.

The law forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, along with material that is not deemed age-appropriate, according to the news organization.

The Republican-led Legislature passed the bill this year and it was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis. It took effect on July 1.

According to the indictment, Harding committed two acts of wire fraud against the Small Business Administration, and by obtaining COVID-19-related small business loans “through false and fraudulent pretenses” between Dec. 1, 2020, and March 1, 2021.

The indictment accuses Harding of making fraudulent applications for Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loans by using the names of dormant businesses. Prosecutors also allege that Harding obtained fraudulently created bank statements for one of the businesses to use as documentation for one of his loan applications.

According to Politico, the two companies used on loan applications were The Vak Shack, which according to its website, sells discounted vacuum sealer bags; and Harding Farms, a 46-acre horse and cattle farm facility. Both companies had not been active in Florida from May 2017 to December 2020, Politico reported.

The indictment alleges that Harding obtained and attempted to obtain more than $150,000 in funds from the SBA.

By this conduct, the indictment alleges that Harding “fraudulently obtained and attempted to obtain more than $150,000 in funds from the SBA to which he was not entitled.”

House Speaker Paul Renner issued a statement on Thursday.

“After further consultation with Rep. Harding, I understand and respect his decision to submit his resignation. Any questions about his case should be directed to his legal counsel,” Renner said. “The Florida House remains focused on next week’s all-important special session on property insurance, hurricane recovery, and toll relief.”

Harding’s resignation is effective immediately, according to Florida Politics.

“To my many colleagues that have reached out to me, including many I have deep policy disagreements with, thank you. It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve alongside you for the past two years,” Harding wrote in his statement. “There will be a time when I can tell my story in detail, and I will,” he wrote. “For now, let me reassure my constituents and the taxpayers that I repaid every penny of the loan I obtained, and I have done my best to cooperate fully with all authorities.”

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