Florida Lawmaker Charged With Pandemic Aid Fraud

MIAMI — A Republican state lawmaker from Florida who sponsored a law that critics have nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay” was indicted for defrauding a federal loan program designed to help small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, federal officials said on Wednesday.

State Representative Joe Harding of Ocala, Fla., illegally obtained or tried to obtain more than $150,000 in pandemic loans from the Small Business Administration for two corporate entities that had been dormant until he applied for the funds, according to a six-count federal indictment. He was charged with two counts of wire fraud, two counts of making false statements and two counts of money laundering.

Mr. Harding, 35, who was first elected in 2020, sponsored legislation this year prohibiting classroom instruction and discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in lower elementary school grades. The law, titled “Parental Rights in Education,” gained national attention from L.G.B.T.Q. groups that feared it would have a chilling effect among teachers and young students.

Mr. Harding, a home health executive, said in a statement that he had pleaded not guilty during an initial court appearance on Wednesday. He was released on bond, and a trial is scheduled for Jan. 11 in Gainesville, Fla.

“I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested,” he said.

Federal authorities have charged more than 1,500 people with defrauding pandemic programs as of this summer, and more than 450 have been convicted.

In an attempt to qualify for pandemic loans, Mr. Harding filled out fraudulent applications on behalf of two corporate entities under his name, the Vak Shack Inc. and Harding Farms LLC, the indictment said.

In loan applications, supporting documents and emails, Mr. Harding claimed that the entities were active businesses in 2019 and 2020, the indictment said. For the Vak Shack, he listed a gross revenue of more than $420,000 in the 12 months before the application, nearly $33,000 in goods sold and four employees. For Harding Farms, he listed a gross revenue of $392,000 and two employees.

But the businesses had, in fact, been dormant from March 2017 to December 2020, the indictment said, and Mr. Harding sought to reinstate them only in the days leading up to his applications for the pandemic loans.

He also “knowingly obtained fraudulently created bank statements” for September and October 2020 for Harding Farms as supporting documents for the loan application, the indictment said, and opened bank accounts at Chase Bank for the federal government to deposit the pandemic loans. In January and February 2021, he made two bank transfers from Chase accounts, one for $30,000 and another for more than $15,000, the indictment said.

After consulting with Mr. Harding on the charges, Paul Renner, the Republican speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, temporarily removed Mr. Harding from his committee assignments on Wednesday “to allow him time to focus on this matter,” Mr. Renner said in a statement.

David A. Fahrenthold contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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