Florida state Rep. Joe Harding has been indicted on charges of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements related to COVID-19 relief funding.
According to the Dec. 7 Indictment, the United States Department of Justice has indicted Harding on two acts of wire fraud by participating in a scheme to defraud the Small Business Administration (SBA) by filing false statements to obtain more than $150,000 in coronavirus-related small business loans. For the purpose of executing such a scheme, Harding caused wire communications to be transmitted in interstate commerce. The indictment further alleges that Harding filed fraudulent SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) applications using fraudulent bank statements in the names of dormant business entities as supporting documentation. The activities are alleged to have taken place between Dec. 1, 2020, and March 1, 2021.
According to the SBA website, the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and EIDL Advance programs provided funding to help small businesses recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The SBA stopped accepting applications for new COVID-19 EIDL loans or advances as of Jan. 1, 2022.
There were two types of COVID-19 EIDL funding, COVID-19 EIDL loan funds, and EIDL Advance funds.
COVID-19 EIDL loan funds could be used for working capital and other normal operating expenses. These loans were not forgivable and must be repaid. EIDL Advance funds were like grants, but without typical U.S. government grant requirements, and do not need to be repaid.
“Harding is also charged with two counts of engaging in monetary transactions with funds derived from unlawful activity related to his transfer of the fraudulently obtained EIDL proceeds into two bank accounts, and two counts of making false statements to the SBA,” the indictment states further.
Harding, a 35-year-old Ocala Republican representing District 24, was first elected to the Florida House in 2020. He rose to prominence in the GOP with his sponsorship of House Bill (HB) 1557, otherwise known as the Parental Rights in Education bill that was targeted by critics.
The measure, signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 28, prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and prohibits instruction that is not age appropriate. The law builds upon the Parents’ Bill of Rights measure, which DeSantis signed into law on June 24, 2021.
Harding is married with two children. His occupation is listed as a “Home Healthcare Executive” and his affiliations include the Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the Rotary Club.
Harding obtained more than $150,000 in SBA loans by submitting false loan applications. Prosecutors allege Harding listed dormant business entities on his applications, fabricated the numbers of people he employed, and submitted fake bank statements.
Harding reported having six employees and a combined revenue of more than $800,000 in the year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prosecutors insist neither was true, alleging that Harding filed fraudulent information with the state to reinstate the businesses just days before applying for COVID relief to make it look like they were active.
In a Dec. 7 statement, Florida state House Speaker Paul Renner announced that he had temporarily relieved Harding of his committee assignments.
To an inquiry by The Epoch Times to the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis regarding Harding’s indictment, Executive Press Secretary Bryan Griffin referred to a statement issued by Florida Republican House Speaker Paul Renner.
“After consultation with Representative Harding regarding his indictment, I am temporarily removing him from his committee assignments to allow him time to focus on this matter,” Renner said in a statement issued Dec. 7. “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.”
In a Dec. 7 press release issued by Harding’s office and posted to social media, Harding said he has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
“Today, I pleaded not guilty to federal charges that state I improperly obtained and used an EIDL loan issued by the Small Business Administration,” the press release asserted. “I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested,” Harding wrote. “On advice from counsel, I will be unable to say anything more specific about the legal proceedings until a later date and refer any questions or concerns related to this matter to my attorney. I ask that you keep me and my family in your prayers as we work for a fair and just resolution. Thank you, and my God bless you.”
Responses to the press release, also posted on Harding’s Facebook page, are being met with both support and criticism.
The trial for Harding is scheduled for Jan. 11 at 8:30 a.m. at the United States Courthouse in Gainesville, Florida, before the Honorable United States District Judge Allen Winsor.
The maximum terms of imprisonment for the offenses are as follows:
- 20 years: wire fraud
- 10 years: money laundering
- 5 years: making false statements
The investigation was conducted jointly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Office of Inspector General, and the Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Inspector General. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Justin M. Keen and David P. Byron.