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Former Florida Republican Lawmaker Sent to Prison for Covid-19 Aid Fraud

Joe Harding, who sponsored ‘don’t say gay’ law, must serve four months for claiming $150,000 in relief funds.

A former Florida state lawmaker who sponsored the state’s divisive law nicknamed don’t say gay was sentenced to prison on Thursday for fraudulently collecting Covid-19 pandemic small-business government aid.

The former Republican representative, Joe Harding, faced a maximum sentence of 20 years, but was sentenced to four months in federal prison.

Following his prison sentence, Harding will have two years of supervised release, the Department of Justice said in a press release.

Harding pleaded guilty in March to several charges, including wire fraud, for fraudulently collecting $150,000 in pandemic relief funds earmarked for small businesses.

Harding’s brother-in-law, Patrick Walsh, was sentenced to more than five years in prison for a separate scheme to obtain small-business funds during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the justice department.

Walsh fraudulently received nearly $5m in pandemic-related aid.

Federal prosecutors accused Harding of providing false information to obtain Covid-19 small business-relief funds.

Harding applied for loans in 2020 with the Small Business Administration (SBA) for a company called the Vak Shack Inc, but Vak Shack had not been in business in 2019 or 2020, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

He also attempted to fraudulently obtain a loan for a second business, but was denied.

Harding was first elected to Florida’s house of representatives in 2020 and re-elected for a second term in 2022, the Tampa Bay reported. He was indicted in December 2022, shortly into his second term and later resigned from office.

Harding gained national attention for sponsoring Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill, legislation that LGBTQ+ advocates have denounced as discriminatory and harmful.

The notorious legislation outlawed the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

The ban was later expanded to all grade levels, after being approved by the Florida board of education in April. Georgia lawmakers attempted to pass a similar bill last March that would prohibit education on sexual orientation and gender identity in private schools.

The law is one of many passed in the past year that target LGBTQ+ rights in Florida, including legislation signed in May by the governor, Ron DeSantis, banning gender-affirming care for anyone under the age of 18.

The law, which also places restrictions on treatments adults can receive for gender dysphoria, has already faced legal action.

Source: The Guardian