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Former Florida Lawmaker Pleads Guilty to COVID Fraud, Faces Up to 35 Years

Former Republican State Rep. Joseph Harding was the main sponsor of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill. Now he faces up to 35 years behind bars.

TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — Former Republican Florida state Rep. Joseph Harding pleaded guilty on Tuesday to wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements related to a COVID-19 relief scheme to defraud the Small Business Association (SBA). According to court documents, Harding collected $150,000 in pandemic-related relief funds and more than $30,000 from other fraudulent activity.

Harding entered a guilty plea at a hearing in the U.S. District Court for Northern Florida to a single count each of wire fraud, making false statements and money laundering. The guilty plea came as a reversal of his earlier plea after the indictment by a federal grand jury in December.

In a new court filing, Harding admitted to fraud when he submitted an application for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) in December 2020 under the name of an inactive, previous business. Harding also admitted transferring the funds and making false statements to the SBA.

Harding, 35, was the main sponsor of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, which prohibits state educators from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The bill also provided avenues for parents to sue school districts that violate the measure.

Harding faces up to 35 years in prison based on the maximum sentences for the combined charges. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for July 25.