Joseph Harding, a leading Republican co-sponsor for Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements—and faces up to 35 years in prison.
The former Florida state representative resigned in December, after being indicted by a federal grand jury for using inactive businesses to apply for emergency loans doled out to small businesses during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Harding stole some $150,000 from the Small Business Administration program meant to help struggling businesses serve their customers and pay their workers during the pandemic, according to a news release from the Justice Department.
Harding became a prominent voice among Florida Republicans after introducing and helping lead the passage of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, one of many authoritarian legislative planks pursued under Ron DeSantis’s reign. The bill bans classroom instruction and discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity for students up to the third grade. Beyond the third grade, such instruction is only to be allowed so long as it is “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate,” in “accordance with state standards,” vague guidelines that have led instructors and students alike to worry how the government will over-enforce an already repressive law.
Harding has entered a plea deal on one count of each of the charges, allowing the other counts against him to be dropped. Still, he faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison for the wire fraud charge, a maximum of 10 for money laundering, and a maximum of five for false statements. The actual sentence to Harding will be doled out in July.
Beyond being one of the leading co-sponsors for the repressive and DeSantis-blessed “Don’t Say Gay” Florida law, Harding was also named vice chair of the state House Health and Human Services Committee and of the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee before he resigned in December.
Since 2021, lawmakers in at least 22 states have introduced at least 42 bills that restrict education or discussion about gender and sexual orientation. While Florida’s is the only one to become law so far, at least 30 other bills are currently progressing through state legislatures.