Photo via Florida Channel
State Rep. Joe Harding has been indicted on charges of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements in an alleged scheme to defraud the Small Business Association and obtain coronavirus-related business loans, federal prosecutors announced Wednesday.
Harding, R-Ocala, “obtained and attempted to obtain more than $150,000 in funds from the SBA to which he was not entitled,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida said in a news release. The allegations involve the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, which was designed to help small businesses grappling with the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harding, 35, was first elected to the House in 2020 and ran unopposed this year in Marion County’s House District 24. Last week, Harding was named vice chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee and vice chairman of the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.
Harding issued a statement Wednesday evening that said he pleaded not guilty to the charges.
"I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested," Harding said.
He also said his attorney advised him not to say anything more specific about the legal proceedings.
"I ask that you keep me and my family in your prayers as we work for a fair and just resolution," Harding said in the statement. "Thank you, and may God bless you.”
House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said he was temporarily removing Harding from committee assignments “to allow him time to focus on this matter.”
Harding drew heavy attention during this year’s legislative session when he sponsored a controversial measure that, in part, prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure, which was formally titled “Parental Rights in Education” by Republican backers but was disparagingly called the “don’t say gay” bill by detractors.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Wednesday that Harding is accused of making fraudulent applications to the disaster-loan program. The news release said Harding “made false representations in supporting loan documentation, in the names of dormant business entities, submitted to the SBA.”
The news release also said Harding obtained fraudulently created bank statements for one of the dormant businesses, with the statements used as supporting documentation for one of the bogus loan applications.
It did not name the dormant businesses.
Harding was indicted by a grand jury on two counts each of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements. Wire fraud carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison; money laundering carries a maximum term of 10 years; and making false statements carries a maximum term of five years.
A trial for Harding is scheduled Jan. 11 in Gainesville, with U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor assigned to hear the case.
Renner referred potential questions about the accusations to Harding’s attorneys.
“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. Since the indictment does not relate to any aspect of his legislative duties, any further questions should be directed to his legal counsel,” Renner said in a prepared statement.