TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - State Rep. Joe Harding resigned his House seat Thursday after being charged with fraudulently obtaining coronavirus-related business loans.
Harding, R-Ocala, submitted his resignation a day after the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida announced a grand-jury indictment on charges of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements.
In a prepared statement Thursday, Harding said he could not comment on the details of the case.
"There will be a time when I can tell my story in detail, and I will," he said in the statement. "For now, let me reassure my constituents and the taxpayers that I repaid every penny of the loan I obtained, and I have done my best to cooperate fully with all authorities."
Harding, 35, was first elected to the House in 2020 and ran unopposed this year in Marion County’s House District 24. After the indictment was announced Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, removed Harding from committee assignments.
Renner issued a brief statement Thursday that alluded to a special legislative session starting Monday.
"After further consultation with Representative Harding, I understand and respect his decision to submit his resignation. Any questions about his case should be directed to his legal counsel," Renner said. "The Florida House remains focused on next week’s all-important special session on property insurance, hurricane recovery, and toll relief."
The 12-page indictment said Harding "made false and fraudulent representations" in applications to the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. The allegations involve actions between December 2020 and March 2021.
Harding made an initial court appearance Wednesday and was released on a $10,000 bond, court records show. A trial is scheduled for Jan. 11 in Gainesville.
The indictment said Harding "obtained and attempted to obtain" more than $150,000 from the SBA through a scheme that involved making false representations in loan documents under the names of dormant businesses,
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Harding is alleged to have misrepresented the number of employees and gross revenues for two businesses, The Vak Shak Inc. and Harding Farms LLC. Harding also "falsely represented that these business entities were active businesses during 2019 and 2020 when in fact they were not," the indictment said.
Also, around the same time he submitted the loan applications, Harding is accused of creating bank accounts for the businesses and subsequently directing the SBA to deposit money into the accounts.
Harding was indicted on two counts each of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements. Wire fraud carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison; money laundering carries a maximum penalty of 10 years, and making false statements carries a maximum penalty of five years.
The indictment drew heavy media attention, as Harding was the sponsor of a controversial education bill during the 2022 legislative session that, in part, prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. Gov. Ron DeSantis in March signed the bill, which critics derided as the "don’t say gay" bill.
Harding, who listed a $456,564 net worth at the end of 2021 in a financial-disclosure form filed with the state, referred to the controversy about the bill in his resignation letter. He and other supporters gave the bill the title, "Parental Rights in Education."
"During the 2022 legislative cycle, when I was under incredible heat regarding my defense of Florida’s parents and families, many were frustrated that I didn’t respond to every critic in the media. I didn’t respond to every critic because the critics were not my constituents," Harding wrote. "Florida’s families were, and in this instance, they still are."
Harding also wrote that he is stepping down to avoid "distractions" that would take away from his legislative duties.
"When I decided to run in 2019 for the Florida House, I did so for two simple reasons: I love people, and I love Florida. Today, I am resigning from my position for the same two reasons: I love people, and I love Florida. I believe in Floridians and want what is best for them, and I believe their leaders need not be encumbered by distractions that are mine alone," the resignation letter said.
Republicans came out of the Nov. 8 elections with an 85-35 majority in the House. Harding’s seat will need to be filled in a special election.