Ex-Florida Lawmaker Gets 4 Months in Prison for Covid-19 Relief Fraud

Joe Harding, 36, last year sponsored the legislation that critics called “Don’t Say Gay.” He pleaded guilty to federal charges in March. 

A former Florida state lawmaker who sponsored a law that critics nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay” was sentenced on Thursday to four months in federal prison for relief fraud, federal prosecutors announced.

The former legislator, Joe Harding, a home health executive from Williston, pleaded guilty in March to charges of wire fraud, money laundering and providing false statements, after he illegally obtained or tried to obtain more than $150,000 in Covid 19 relief loans from the Small Business Administration for two companies that had been dormant until he applied for the funds.

He had been initially indicted on six counts in December, but prosecutors dropped three of the charges in a plea deal.

Mr. Harding’s four-month sentence, which will begin in January, will be followed by a two-year supervised release period, prosecutors said. 

“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, an I.R.S. investigator who worked on the case, said in a news release. “Greed and public service should never meet, but when they do, we stand ready to ensure bad actors are held responsible for their actions.” 

On Friday, Mr. Harding’s lawyer, John Lauro, said that his client had “repaid the loans in full that were at issue in the case” and that “there was no money that was owed to the federal government.” He added that the loans had been repaid before criminal charges were filed. 

Mr. Lauro said that Mr. Harding had also cooperated in a separate pandemic relief fraud investigation involving Mr. Harding’s brother-in-law, 42-year-old Patrick Parker Walsh, who was sentenced to more than five years in prison earlier this year. 

Prosecutors said that Mr. Harding had filled out fraudulent loan applications for two companies under his name, the Vak Shack Inc. and Harding Farms LLC. In the applications, he claimed both businesses had been active in 2019 and 2020 and provided their respective revenue figures and employee counts. 

But neither business had been active since March 2017, prosecutors said. Mr. Harding had falsified bank statements to support his loan application and opened up new bank accounts for the federal government to deposit the loans. 

He made three transactions over $10,000 using the ill-gotten money, including a transfer to a joint bank account and a credit card payment, prosecutors said. 

Mr. Harding, a Republican who was elected in 2020 to represent a Central Florida district in the state’s House of Representatives, was among the sponsors of a bill last year to prohibit discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in lower-grade elementary school classrooms

The bill, called Parental Rights in Education, was approved and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and has been denounced by L.G.B.T.Q. groups. 

Mr. Harding resigned from the Legislature last year after he was indicted. 

Orlando Mayorquin is a general assignment and breaking news reporter based in New York. More about Orlando Mayorquin