A legislative ally in Florida to Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has been charged with a series of criminal offenses for pursuing over $150,000 in federal relief funds connected to the COVID-19 pandemic in the names of two businesses that were no longer actually operational.
In support of his fraudulent push for some of the federal money, this state legislator — Republican Joe Harding — used falsified bank statements and made explicitly false claims regarding incomes made at these businesses and employees on staff there. Harding’s list of charges also includes engaging in financial transactions with funds taken from illegal acts, in connection to transfers he made of tens of thousands of dollars obtained under false claims. His charges, ranging from wire fraud to money laundering and making false statements, carry lengthy prison terms if convicted, and Harding is scheduled to go on trial early next year in federal court in Florida. For now, he remains in Florida’s state House, but he will be temporarily booted from committee roles as his case moves forward. His committee service includes a stint on a panel dealing with Congressional redistricting in Florida following the most recent census.
In the legislature, Harding sponsored the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” legislation that DeSantis subsequently signed and championed that restricts classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s not the only measure behind which the governor has thrown his weight that threatens to severely limit speech in Florida schools. Another law he signed imposed restrictions on teaching concepts like white privilege and affirmative action in educational and workplace environments and created possibilities of civil penalties for those in violation. A federal judge recently blocked that controversial measure, which allowed only for the discussion of restricted subjects in an “objective” manner, something the governor’s team defined to mean an inherently critical perspective — although that’s not the strict definition of the concept.
As for Harding, the extent of his misrepresentations to authorities regarding the nature of the two businesses he used in his requests for funds certainly suggests a rather comprehensive plan. He wasn’t just off by a little. For both, there was actually no revenue and nobody on staff during the 12 months prior to the late January 2020 date identified by federal authorities as the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. He claimed hundreds of thousands in revenue and multiple employees at each. Harding has claimed that he fully repaid any funds he received from federal authorities, and he has already entered a plea of not guilty in this newly revealed criminal case. Harding was first elected in 2020.