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Samaa Khullar

"Don't Say Gay" author guilty of fraud

Former Florida state Rep. Joseph Harding, who sponsored the so-called "Don't Say Gay" law banning the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the state's primary school classrooms, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to fraudulently obtaining tens of thousands of dollars from a federal COVID relief program.

Harding at his hearing in the U.S. District Court for Northern Florida submitted a guilty plea for a single count each of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements stemming from a six-count indictment in December, NBC News reported. 

Harding, who resigned from his state House seat after his indictment, admitted to the crimes, reversing his earlier "not guilty" plea. A new court filing obtained by NBC found that the former lawmaker acknowledged that he made false statements when submitting an application for an economic injury disaster loan in December 2020. The company he listed had no business activity and was dormant at the time.

Harding fraudulently obtained $150,000 in COVID relief funds from the Small Business Administration, and then made three transfers, each more than $10,000, to his joint bank account in order to pay off his credit card and into a bank account for a business entity, the court documents showed. 

He was first elected in 2020 and previously stated on Facebook that he repaid "every penny" of the fraudulent loan and that he would one day tell his side of the story. 

"Mr. Harding made the best decision available to him under the circumstances to protect his family and his future," Harding's lawyer, Peg O'Connor, said in a statement to NBC on Tuesday. "We look forward to presenting information at sentencing that will provide a fuller picture and give some insight into who Mr. Harding is as a person."

The disgraced lawmaker faces up to 35 years in prison if he receives the maximum sentence of 20 years for the wire fraud charge, 10 years for money laundering and five years for making false statements. His sentencing has been scheduled for July 25 in Gainesville, Florida.

Harding sponsored a measure in the Florida House prohibiting "classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity" in the state's primary schools. The legislation, known to its critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, was signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"This bill is about protecting our kids," Harding said when DeSantis signed the bill into law last year, "empowering parents and ensuring they have the information they need to do their God-given job of raising their child." 

The legislation created a ripple effect, spawning similar bills in more than a dozen other conservative states. 

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