Former lawmaker sentenced to four years in prison in relief money scheme

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(The Center Square) – Former state Rep. Joe Harding, an author of a controversial bill to prohibit instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in schools, has been sentenced to four months in prison for lying on a federal COVID-19 loan application.

Harding, 36, was sentenced Thursday on charges of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida said in a news release.

Harding made “materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promises” when he obtained a $150,000 COVID relief loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the release said.

Instead of using the loan proceeds to help a business survive, Harding “selfishly diverted” the funds for personal gain, prosecutors said.

According to the indictment, Harding created bank statements for one of the dormant businesses on his loan application.

“Mr. Harding egregiously betrayed the public trust by stealing from COVID relief funds meant to help the very people who elected him,” Brian J. Payne, special agent in charge of the Internal Revenue Service’s Tampa Field Office, said in a statement. “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 pleaded guilty to the federal charges in March, prosecutors said. He resigned from the Legislature in December.

Harding’s legislation barring public school districts from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade, or “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students,” was passed in 2022 and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Center Square was unsuccessful in obtaining comments before this publication from Harding’s attorney, John Lauro. The lawyer told CBS MoneyWatch the $150,000 in loans have been repaid.

“Joe cooperated completely and did everything he could to make things right,” Lauro told the network. “These events were, needless to say unfortunate, but Joe is focused on rebuilding his life and his career, and moving forward.”

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