Joseph Harding, a former Florida lawmaker and sponsor of the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, has pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges related to COVID–19 relief funds. In December, a federal grand jury returned an indictment against Harding, 35, who was accused of lying on his applications to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, which gave out loans to businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Harding, who was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in November 2020, is alleged to have fraudulently obtained more than $150,000 from the Small Business Administration, portions of which he transferred to a bank and used to make a credit card payment. He entered a guilty plea on Tuesday in federal court in the Northern District of Florida to one count of wire fraud, one count of money laundering, and one count of making false statements. The “Don’t Say Gay” law, which was signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last March, was heavily criticised by Democrats and LGBTQ groups for its attempt to chill speech in schools. The legislation became a blueprint for similar laws in more than a dozen other conservative states. Harding’s arrest is a stark reminder of the dangers of fraud in relation to the unprecedented amount of COVID-19 relief funds that have been distributed by the federal government. A report released in April 2021 estimated that billions of dollars in relief loans have been handed out to scammers in the U.S. The report also found that thousands of scammers have used stolen identities to apply for assistance, while some businesses have been involved in “double-dipping” in which they applied for more assistance than they were entitled to. In addition, the report highlighted the problem of fraudsters using false information to obtain loans and then using the funds to purchase luxury items, such as cars and jewelry. The extent of the fraud carried out by Harding is still unknown, but the consequences of his actions could be severe. He faces up to 35 years in prison, including a maximum of 20 years on the wire fraud charge. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for July 25 at the federal courthouse in Gainesville. While Harding’s case is an extreme example, it serves as a warning to other individuals and businesses to be vigilant in their dealings with COVID-19 relief funds. It is essential that all individuals and businesses who have received assistance ensure that they are complying with all applicable laws and regulations, and that they are using the funds solely for their intended purpose.
NPR covered it well.