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HomeCrimeFormer Florida lawmaker sentenced to four months in prison over pandemic fraud

Former Florida lawmaker sentenced to four months in prison over pandemic fraud

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By Silas Morgan
Fresh Take Florida

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Former Republican state lawmaker Joe Harding of Ocala, the sponsor of Florida’s controversial law limiting discussions of gender and sexuality in public schools, was sentenced to four months in prison on charges of defrauding the government of $150,000 in pandemic aid.

Judge Allen Winsor sentenced Harding in U.S. District Court in Gainesville on Thursday. Harding’s family and friends wept throughout the proceedings. One spectator wept audibly after his sentence was read.

Harding’s brother, Pastor Daniel Harding, told the judge that his brother was a committed family man and pious Christian who taught kids softball instead of advancing his business interests. “I ask for mercy,” he said.

Tallahassee political consultant Brett Doster said that Harding received advice to frame his prosecution as political persecution, but that he decided to be honest and take responsibility instead. Harding, who resigned from the Legislature, repaid the $150,000.

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Winsor said that it was a difficult and sad case, and that Harding received a tremendous amount of family and community support. Prosecutor Justin Keen said he has no reasons to doubt any of the positive aspects of Harding’s character described in court.
Harding declined to answer questions as he left the courthouse.

When he is released from prison, Harding will be required to serve two years of supervised release and pay a $300 fine. He was ordered to turn himself into custody by noon Jan. 29.

Harding resigned from office in December shortly after being indicted on two counts each of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements. Had he been convicted on all counts, Harding could have faced up to 70 years in prison.

Harding initially pleaded not guilty to all charges, but as part of a plea deal with prosecutors, he ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of each charge, cutting the maximum prison sentence to 35 years.

Despite serving just over a single two-year term in the Florida House from 2020-2022, Harding gained notoriety for being the sponsor of the Parental Rights in Education Act, a bill derided by critics as the ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill,’ which banned discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools from kindergarten through third grade. The law was later expanded to cover fourth through 12th grades.

According to court records, Harding defrauded the federal government through loan applications with the federal government’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program for two companies he owned that were inactive. He applied for a loan for both companies, but only one was approved.

Prosecutors said Harding used part of the money to pay his credit card balance. Some funds were shifted to the bank account of an oil company owned by his brother-in-law, Patrick Walsh. In January, Walsh was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison for defrauding the federal government of $7.8 million in COVID-19 loans, some of which was used to purchase an island in the Gulf of Mexico.

During the sentencing, Keen noted it was Walsh who initially advised Harding to file the fraudulent applications as he had himself done. Winsor said he didn’t know if this case would’ve happened if Harding had a different brother-in-law.

Both men admitted to falsifying the number of employees, gross revenue and status of the businesses in their loan applications. Walsh’s younger brother, Tampa businessman Caleb Walsh, faced scrutiny from federal investigators during the summer over his own COVID-19 loans totaling $4.3 million.
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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here:
https://www.uff.ufl.edu/giving-opportunities/025511-fresh-take-florida-support-fund/

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