Lawmaker Harding resigns after feds charge him with COVID loan fraud

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida lawmaker who sponsored the controversial law critics call “Don’t Say Gay” resigned on Thursday, one day after authorities announced his indictment on charges of defrauding a federal COVID-19 loan program for small businesses.

Rep. Joe Harding, a 35-year-old Republican from Ocala, sent a resignation letter to House Speaker Paul Renner, saying he needed to focus on his upcoming trial, which is scheduled to start on Jan. 11.

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“Now is the time to allow someone else to serve my district,” said Harding, who represented a two-county area in the north-central portion of the state.

Renner said in a statement that he understood and respected the decision. Gov. Ron DeSantis will have to call a special election to replace Harding.

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Florida Rep. Joe Harding looks up during a legislative session at the Florida State Capitol, Monday, March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee.

Harding is accused of illegally obtaining or trying to obtain more than $150,000 from the Small Business Administration in pandemic aid loans. He is being charged with two counts of wire fraud, two counts of money laundering and two counts of making false statements.

The indictment says Harding filled out fraudulent applications on behalf of two corporate entities under his name, the Vak Shack Inc. and Harding Farms LLC.

In loan applications and other documents, 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 been dormant from March 2017 to December 2020, the indictment said, and Harding sought to reinstate them only in the days leading up to his applications for the pandemic loans.

Harding became nationally known this year over his sponsorship of a law that forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, as well as material not deemed age-appropriate.

On Wednesday, he issued a statement saying, “I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested.”

The Associated Press and New York Times contributed to this report.