A Florida state lawmaker known for sponsoring legislation that regulates classroom talk about sexual orientation and gender identity was indicted for allegedly trying illicitly to obtain more than $150,000 in federal pandemic relief funds. Florida state Rep. Joseph B. Harding, 35, a Republican, was accused of making fraudulent applications to the Small Business Administration using the names of dormant business entities. Harding is also accused of submitting “fraudulently created bank statements” in the applications, the Justice Department said, reports the Washington Post. Prosecutors said Harding falsified the number of employees and gross revenue for the two entities, the Vak Shack and Harding Farms. “Further, Harding falsely represented that these business entities were active businesses during 2019 and 2020 when in fact they were not,” the indictment said. The Vak Shack had no employees and zero revenue in the 12 months leading up to Jan. 31, 2020. Harding knowingly lied to the federal government by claiming the entity had four employees and had earned about $420,000 in that period. Harding Farms also had no employees and zero revenue in the 12 months leading up to Jan. 31, 2020. But Harding said in his application that the entity had two workers and had earned $392,000.
Harding has said he fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators. Florida House Speaker Paul Renner temporarily removed Harding from his committee assignments. Harding’s case is one of hundreds involving the misuse of federal programs and aid intended to help cities, businesses and individuals weather the coronavirus pandemic. The $5 trillion in funds helped the U.S. avoid economic disaster but created room for fraud and abuse, while making inflation worse. The Small Business Administration has been accused of barely reviewing applications for coronavirus relief funds early in the pandemic and approved applications that had obvious signs of fraud. Harding is known for his sponsorship of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, which its critics call the “don’t say gay” law. It prohibits instruction or classroom discussion about LGBTQ topics for students from kindergarten to the third grade.