The sponsor of Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill was indicted on money laundering charges.
Joseph Harding was accused by prosecutors of lining his pockets with COVID-related disaster loans.
Prosecutors alleged he created fake businesses, banks statements and lied to the SBA.
One of the chief architects behind Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill was indicted on federal charges of money laundering and fraud, after prosecutors claimed that he had siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Small Business Administration.
Federal prosecutors said in the indictment notice Wednesday that Florida State Representative Joseph Harding created dormant businesses and fake bank statements throughout the pandemic. He raked in more than $150,000 through his scheme, per the US Attorney's Office, and was indicted by a grand jury on Wednesday on six counts of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements.
In the indictment, prosecutors said that Harding used the SBA's Economic Injury Disaster Loans, meant for COVID-related expenses, to enrich himself between December 2020 and March 2021. Harding lied to the SBA in the process, the indictment added, and could receive a maximum 35 year prison sentence for all of the charges.
"By this conduct, the indictment alleges that Harding fraudulently obtained and attempted to obtain more than $150,000 in funds from the SBA to which he was not entitled," prosecutors said.
Harding did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment. His office released a statement Wednesday via Twitter, saying "Today, I pleaded not guilty to federal charges that state I improperly obtained and used an EIDL loan issued by the Small Business Administration. I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested."
Republican House Speaker Paul Renner said Wednesday that he was temporarily removing Harding from his committee assignments in the legislature to give him "time to focus on this matter."
"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," Renner said.
A trial on the matter is scheduled for early January, prosecutors said. If found guilty, Harding faces a maximum possible sentence of 20 years on the wire fraud charges; 10 years on the money laundering allegations; and five years in prison for allegedly making false statements.
In 2022, Harding sponsored Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" Bill, which is officially called the "Parental Rights in Education" bill. The legislation, which went into effect in July, bans instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation through third grade, and contains vague language about how such matters can be taught in higher grades.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the contentious bill into law earlier this year. The bill's measures also allow parents to sue school districts that don't comply.
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