Florida lawmaker behind 'Don't Say Gay' bill resigns after being indicted on fraud charges

Joseph Harding resigned a day after pleading not guilty to the charges.

December 8, 2022, 7:52 PM

A Florida state representative behind the Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by critics, announced his resignation after he was indicted on wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements charges.

A federal grand jury in the Northern District of Florida returned a six-count indictment against Joseph Harding, who is accused of scheming to defraud the Small Business Administration and obtaining COVID-19-related loans on false pretenses, the Department of Justice announced Wednesday.

Harding, 35, allegedly sought Economic Injury Disaster Loans using the names of shuttered businesses. He is further alleged to have obtained falsified bank statements for one of those dormant businesses to obtain more than $150,000 in funds from the SBA.

PHOTO: Florida state Rep. Joe Harding listens during a Local Administration and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee hearing in a legislative session on Jan. 13, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Florida state Rep. Joe Harding listens during a Local Administration and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee hearing in a legislative session on Jan. 13, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP, FILE

Harding was charged with two counts of wire fraud, two counts of engaging in monetary transactions with funds derived from unlawful activity and two counts of making false statements to the SBA.

Harding announced his resignation from the Florida House, effective immediately, on Thursday, a day after pleading not guilty to all charges in federal court.

"It has been a great honor to serve the people of this state and more specifically the people of Levy and Marion Counties," he said in a letter of resignation to Florida House Speaker Paul Renner. "However, due to legal issues that require my complete focus, it is my opinion that now is the time to allow someone else to serve my district."

In a statement, Harding said he cannot comment on the details of his case, though added that he has "repaid every penny of the loan I obtained, and I have done my best to cooperate fully with all authorities."

Harding's trial is set for Jan. 11 next year. If convicted, the maximum prison sentence he faces for the offenses is 20 years for wire fraud, 10 years for money laundering and five years for making false statements, according to the Department of Justice.

ABC News did not receive a response from his attorney to an email seeking comment.

As a state representative, Harding introduced the controversial parental rights and education bill earlier this year. The bill quickly passed the state legislature and was signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in March.

The law bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. It also states that any instruction on those topics cannot occur "in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards," according to the legislation, HB 1557. Parents could sue their school district if they believe there is a violation.

The bill, which went into effect on July 1, sparked immediate backlash from some LGBTQ people and activists nationwide, who say this legislation misrepresents these identities as inherently sexual, shameful or taboo.

Copycat legislation has since been introduced in other states. A bill recently introduced in Congress that would restrict federal funding from organizations, local governments and schools that include LGBTQ content in events, programs, education and more has been dubbed a federal "Don't Say Gay" bill by LGBTQ activists.

ABC News' Kiara Alfonseca contributed to this report.