Indicted sponsor of Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’ bill resigns from Legislature

Miami Herald | By Romy Ellenbogen,, Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau | December 8, 2022

One day after being indicted on charges of money laundering and wire fraud, state Republican Rep. Joe Harding of Ocala announced his resignation from Florida’s House of Representatives.

Harding was the sponsor of the Parental Rights in Education law, which opponents nicknamed the “don’t say gay” bill. The legislation prohibits classroom instruction and discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. Gov. Ron DeSantis supported the measure and signed it into law in March.

In a statement Thursday, Harding said he was resigning because he wants what is best for Floridians, “and I believe their leaders need not be encumbered by distractions that are mine alone.”

On Wednesday, an indictment from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida accused Harding of falsely representing two dormant businesses of his as active to get coronavirus-related loans from the Small Business Administration.

By claiming two of his businesses, The Vak Shak Inc. and Harding Farms LLC, were active before 2020, Harding obtained or attempted to obtain more than $150,000 “to which he was not entitled,” according to the news release from the U.S. attorney’s office.

In reality, the businesses Harding had used to apply for loans were not active, had no gross revenue and no employees, according to the indictment.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Renner said he would remove Harding temporarily from his committee assignments “to allow him time to focus on this matter.” Harding had been named to serve as the vice chair of the Health & Human Services committee and the vice chair of the PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee.

“After further consultation with Representative Harding, I understand and respect his decision to submit his resignation,” Renner said in a statement Thursday.

In a statement, Harding thanked his family, his colleagues and his constituents, saying he fought for Florida families during his time in office.

“If my time in the Legislature was meant, by Providence, to only be two years, I can say with confidence that I left it all on the field for those two years,” he said.

He said he could not comment on the details of his case but said, “There will be a time when I can tell my story in detail,” and said he repaid “every penny” of the loan.

With Harding out of office, a special election is required to fill the House District 24 seat. DeSantis and the secretary of state will set the dates for the special primary and election.

Florida’s legislative special session focused on insurance begins next week; the regular session begins March 7.

Harding has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial on Jan. 11. The maximum sentence for wire fraud is 20 years, while the maximum sentence for money laundering is 10 years and making false statements is five years.

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