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Ex-Florida lawmaker behind the 'Don't Say Gay' law pleads guilty to COVID relief fraud

Former Florida lawmaker Joseph Harding has pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges related to COVID-19 relief funds. The 35-year-old is scheduled for sentencing in July.
Phelan M. Ebenhack
/
AP
Former Florida lawmaker Joseph Harding has pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges related to COVID-19 relief funds. The 35-year-old is scheduled for sentencing in July.

A former Florida lawmaker who sponsored a bill dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" law by critics has pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining COVID-19 relief funds.

Joseph Harding 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, according to court records.

Harding 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.

The former Republican lawmaker shot to notoriety last year as one of the sponsors of a controversial Florida law that outlawed the discussion of sexuality and gender in public school classrooms from kindergarten through grade 3.

The legislation became a blueprint for similar laws in more than a dozen other conservative states.

"This bill is about protecting our kids, empowering parents and ensuring they have the information they need to do their God-given job of raising their child," Harding said when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law last March.

Critics from Democrats to LGBTQ groups took to calling it the "Don't Say Gay" law and condemned Republicans for chilling speech in schools.

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. He resigned from Florida's House of Representatives one day later.

Harding 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, prosecutors said.

In his bio on the Florida House Republicans website, Harding is described as a "serial entrepreneur" who started several businesses related to "boarding and training horses, real estate development, home construction, and landscaping."

He was first elected to public office when he won the state House seat in November 2020.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
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