State Rep. Joe Harding, a Republican from North Florida, was indicted Wednesday on charges of money laundering and wire fraud after a federal grand jury said he falsely claimed two inactive businesses of his had employees in order to get coronavirus-related loans.
The federal indictment accuses Harding, R-Ocala, of scheming to defraud the Small Business Administration in order to get Economic Injury Disaster Loans, saying he obtained or attempted to obtain more than $150,000 “to which he was not entitled,” according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida.
Harding in a statement said he pleaded not guilty to the federal charges and said he wants “the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested.”
He added that “on advice from counsel, I will be unable to say anything more specific about the legal proceedings” until later and asked for prayers as he and his family “work for a fair and just resolution.”
House Speaker Paul Renner said he is “temporarily” removing Harding from his committee assignments “to allow him time to focus on this matter.” Harding was slated to serve as the vice chairperson of the Health & Human Services committee and the vice chairperson of the PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee.
“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 in a statement. “Since the indictment does not relate to any aspect of his legislative duties, any further questions should be directed to his legal counsel.”
According to the indictment, in December 2020 Harding submitted loan applications for his businesses The Vak Shak Inc. and Harding Farms LLC, falsely representing the number of employees for the companies and falsely claiming the businesses were active in 2019 and 2020.
In his loan application, Harding said The Vak Shak had gross revenue of more than $400,000 prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and that the company had four employees. In reality, the company had been dormant from 2017 to 2020, had no gross revenue and had no employees, according to the indictment.
For Harding Farms, Harding said the company had gross revenue of about $400,000 and two employees. In reality, the company was dormant from 2017 to 2020, had no revenue and had no employees, according to the indictment.
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Harding included “fraudulently created” bank statements for Harding Farms to support his application, according to the indictment.
Around the same time he submitted the loan application, Harding reinstated the companies with Florida’s Department of State Division of Corporations to make it appear the companies were active, according to the report.
Harding has been in office since 2020. He drew national attention earlier this year when he introduced House Bill 1557, which supporters call the “Parental Rights in Education” bill but opponents refer to as the “don’t say gay” bill.
The law prohibits classroom instruction and discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade — but lessons for older grades can be impacted, too, if they are discussed in ways that are not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure into law in March, after the proposal became a national lightning rod and sparked criticism from LGBTQ organizations and Disney, one of the state’s largest employers and a major corporate political donor.
The maximum sentence for wire fraud is 20 years, while the maximum sentence for money laundering is 10 years and is five years for making false statements. Harding’s trial is set for Jan. 11.
Times/Herald staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.