Florida Republican behind “Don’t Say Gay” law charged with COVID relief fraud

Democrat says she's not surprised someone who "exploits queer kids" would "be charged with exploiting taxpayers"

Published December 9, 2022 10:24AM (EST)

Florida State Capitol building on November 10, 2018 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
Florida State Capitol building on November 10, 2018 in Tallahassee, Florida. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

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The Republican state lawmaker behind legislation that's pushed some LGBTQ+ teachers in Florida to leave education is facing federal charges for allegedly defrauding a federal program meant to provide aid for small businesses of his during the Covid-19 pandemic.

State Rep. Joseph Harding was indicted by a grand jury and has been accused of falsifying bank statements and making illegal bank transfers in order to wrongfully obtain $150,000 in federal pandemic relief funds for businesses that were not actually operating at the time.

Harding will go to trial on January 11 for the six-count indictment of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements—crimes that carry maximum prison sentences of 20, 10, and five years, respectively.

In 2021, he allegedly applied for relief funds using the names of two inactive businesses, falsely claiming that one had four employees and had earned $420,000 in the 12 months prior to the pandemic and that another had two employees and had earned nearly $400,000.

Harding said in a statement Wednesday that he "fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested."

His fellow Florida lawmaker, state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-47), expressed doubt about Harding's denial of wrongdoing.

"It does not surprise me that someone who exploits queer kids for political gain would be charged with exploiting taxpayers for personal gain," tweeted Eskamani.

Harding sponsored the Parental Rights in Education Act, known by critics as the state's "Don't Say Gay" law. The measure bans Florida public school teachers from holding classroom discussions in kindergarten through third grade about topics involving sexual orientation and gender identity. The law has sparked at least 20 "copycat" proposals this year and has been condemned as an attack on LGBTQ+ teachers and students and those who have LGBTQ+ family members.

The lawmaker suggested in an interview ahead of a key vote on the legislation this year that teachers need to be stopped from "discussing heavy sexual topics with children before puberty."

"Anyone who watched Rep. Harding defend his 'Don't Say Gay' bill in committee could see he had some trouble with the truth," said Slate journalist Mark Joseph Stern.

Harding also called on authorities to "release the dogs" when Planned Parenthood affiliates were accused of wrongfully receiving coronavirus relief.

Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell posited that Harding may be among "many politicians who demonize gay people... to distract from their own sins and flaws."

"On Wednesday, the sponsor of Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill was indicted for fraud and money laundering," said Maxwell. "But sure, two loving mothers are the problem."

By Julia Conley

Julia Conley is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

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