Republican Lawmaker Sentenced To Prison For COVID-19 Relief Fraud

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Former Florida state Rep. Joe Harding was sentenced to six months in federal prison Thursday for defrauding a pandemic aid program, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

The 36-year-old Republican was accused of illicitly securing over $150,000 from the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, meant to aid small businesses adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the AP.

Harding, who resigned last December, pleaded guilty in March to charges of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements related to COVID-19 relief fraud, per the AP.

Harding applied for relief funds for a non-active business entity, providing false information to the SBA, the AP reported. Upon the receipt of the funds, he reportedly conducted three substantial transactions, including fund transfers to personal and third-party business bank accounts and a credit card payment, the outlet noted, citing court documents. (RELATED: 17 Florida Sheriff’s Deputies Indicted For Pandemic Aid Fraud)

“The theft of any amount of taxpayer funds is inexcusable,” U.S. Attorney Jason Coody said in a Thursday news release. “However, the defendant’s deceptive acts of diverting emergency financial assistance from small businesses during the pandemic is simply beyond the pale.”

Harding rose to prominence due to his sponsorship of Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” law, which regulates discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida schools, particularly from kindergarten through third grade. The legislation, dubbed by its critics as “Don’t Say Gay” law, was part of Harding’s public profile prior to the legal proceedings concerning fraud, the report states.