A Republican lawmaker in Florida who sponsored the state’s controversial legislation known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was indicted Wednesday on charges of defrauding the government of coronavirus relief loans.
Federal prosecutors allege state Rep. Joe Harding illegally obtained or tried to obtain more than $150,000 in federal loans meant for small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Harding, who was elected in 2020, was charged with using two dormant corporate entities to apply for the funds, filling out fraudulent applications.
In his application, prosecutors said Harding claimed one of his businesses had more than $400,000 in revenue and four employees in the months prior to the pandemic. The company has actually been dormant for three years, with no revenue or no employees.
The indictment also alleges Harding created false bank statements to support his applications.
He faces six counts, including wire fraud, making false statements and money laundering. Harding has pleaded not guilty and was released on bond before a scheduled trial on Jan. 11.
“I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested,” he told The Associated Press in a statement.
Harding sponsored the “Don’t Say Gay” bill earlier this year, which sparked nationwide outrage before Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed the bill into law in March. The legislation effectively forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in many elementary school classrooms, allowing parents to sue school districts in order to enforce it.
Civil rights groups have roundly criticized the law as homophobic, discriminatory and hateful. Research has already shown a surge in anti-LGBTQ hate since the law passed.