Ex-Florida GOP lawmaker pleads guilty to COVID-19 relief fraud

March 22 (UPI) -- A former Florida state Republican lawmaker known for sponsoring the so-called Don't Say Gay bill has pleaded guilty to defrauding the federal government of tens of thousands of COVID-19 relief funds.

Joseph Harding, the 35-year-old former state House representative for Florida's District 24, pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count each of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements, the Justice Department said.


A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for 11 a.m. on July 25 when Harding faces a maximum sentence of 20 years for the wire fraud charge, 10 years for the money laundering count and five years for making false statements.

Harding's attorney, Peg O'Connor, told CNN in a statement that her client "made the best decision available to him under the circumstances to protect his family and his future."

Harding resigned in December after being indicted by a federal grand jury on six counts stemming from a scheme he conducted to defraud the Small Business Administration.

Prosecutors said the scheme involved him using his dormant businesses to file false documents to the SBA's COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster program, which was created to help small businesses survive the pandemic.


Court documents state that through this action, he obtained $150,000.

After receiving the funds, prosecutors said he transferred the money to a joint bank account and to a third-party business as well as used it to pay his credit car, prosecutors said, adding that each transaction was for more than $10,000.

Harding gained national attention early last year after sponsoring House Bill 1557, The Parental Rights In Education Act, which restricted what LGBTQ information teachers could discuss with their students in school.

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