A Florida lawmaker who authored the state’s law banning classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in elementary school was indicted Wednesday on federal money charges related to COVID relief loans.As a freshman state representative, Rep. Joe Harding helped shepherd through the Parental Rights in Education Act, which drew outrage from the LGBTQ community and cemented Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reputation for enthusiastically waging right-wing culture wars. DeSantis handily won re-election to a second term as governor last month and is now viewed as a leading potential candidate for president in 2024.
But Harding’s political future is looking much less promising.The lawmaker fraudulently took more than $150,000 in Small Business Administration COVID relief loans between December 2020 and March 2021, the Department of Justice alleged. The loans were meant for what the DOJ referred to as two “dormant business entities.” One business, an Orlando-based vacuum sealing company called the Vak Shack, had no employees and no revenue in the year leading up to the pandemic, according to the Washington Post. But Harding reportedly claimed in loan application documents that the company had four employees and had earned $420,000 in that period. Harding also reportedly said a company called Harding Farms had two employees and nearly $400,000 in revenue—but it also had zero revenue or employees.Harding was indicted for money laundering, wire fraud, and making false statements, and faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted. Harding said in a Wednesday statement that he would plead not guilty, but would not elaborate on the advice of legal counsel. “I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested,” Harding said.“I ask that you keep me and my family in your prayers as we work for a fair and just resolution. Thank you, and may God bless you,” Harding said in the statement. Harding also deactivated his Twitter account.
Florida House Speaker Paul Renner said Harding was being removed from his committee assignments “to allow him time to focus on this matter.” Renner also indicated Harding wouldn’t be removed from office before a verdict. “In America we adhere to the rule of law, and as such, Representative Harding is presumed innocent and will have the opportunity to plead his case before a court,” Renner said.
If the alleged fraud ends Harding’s time in office, his legacy will be contributing to the nationwide surge of state legislation targeting the queer and transgender community, and especially LGBTQ youth and their families. More than a dozen states considered legislation modeled after the Parental Rights in Education Law this year, according to NPR, and more are likely to follow when legislatures resume their sessions in the new year.A coalition of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit challenging the Florida law, but it was dismissed in October as the judge found they didn’t have standing.Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.