Florida Republican who sponsored ‘Don’t Say Gay’ resigns after federal indictment

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Republican state Rep. Joe Harding resigned from office one day after a federal grand jury indictment against him was unsealed alleging he defrauded a federal pandemic-related small business loan program.

“Today, I am resigning from my position for the same two reasons: I love people, and I love Florida,” Harding said in a statement. “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.”

His resignation is effective immediately.

The Justice Department on Wednesday unsealed an indictment alleging Harding, a 35-year-old Ocala Republican, used two long-defunct companies on applications for pandemic loans through the Small Business Administration. He is facing six federal counts, including two on wire fraud charges, and a total of 35 years in jail if convicted on each.

Harding pleaded not guilty during an hearing on Tuesday, the same day the grand jury indicted him, and said he has repaid the loans. He was released on bond shortly after the preliminary hearing.
The indictment alleges he fraudulently received $150,000 in federal pandemic assistance through. His trial is set for Jan. 11 in Gainesville federal court.

Shortly after the indictment was unsealed Wednesday, Florida House Speaker Paul Renner announced Harding was removed from his committee posts. He said because the allegation did not involve his service as a member of the Florida House, he would not comment further.

The indictment unsealed by the federal government claims that Harding listed The Vak Shack and Harding Farms, both companies that had been inactive since 2017, on application for SBA loans designed to help small businesses survive the pandemic. He also lied about their revenue numbers, bank statements, and employee counts to secure the loans, federal investigators allege.

The Marion County representative was first elected in 2020 and is best known for being the House sponsor for legislation that banned discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in classrooms up until third grade. The bill, which opponents branded the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, sparked protests and got national attention.

A special election will now be held to fill his vacant seat.