Florida Republican Lawmaker to Serve Prison Sentence for COVID Relief Fraud

Kos Temenes
By Kos Temenes
October 21, 2023US News
Florida Republican Lawmaker to Serve Prison Sentence for COVID Relief Fraud
Florida Rep. Joe Harding listens during a Local Administration and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee hearing in a legislative session, in Tallahassee, Fla., on Jan. 13, 2022. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

A Florida Republican lawmaker has been sentenced to six months in federal prison. His sentencing on Oct. 20 followed a charge of defrauding a federal coronavirus relief loan program for small businesses.

Former state Rep. Joe Harding resigned from office in December last year after being charged with fraudulently obtaining more than $150,000 from the Small Business Administration in pandemic aid loans.

In order to obtain the loans, Harding made false statements to the Small Business Administration (SBA) while applying for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan for one of his dormant business entities, court records show.

The Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program was designed to provide economic relief to small businesses experiencing a temporary loss of revenue.

In March, Mr. Harding pleaded guilty to wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements in connection with the loan program.

“The theft of any amount of taxpayer funds is inexcusable. However, the defendant’s deceptive acts of diverting emergency financial assistance from small businesses during the pandemic is simply beyond the pale,” according to a news release by U.S. Attorney Jason Coody.

“Mr. Harding egregiously betrayed the public trust by stealing from COVID relief funds meant to help the very people who elected him. Greed and public service should never meet, but when they do, we stand ready to ensure bad actors are held responsible for their actions,” according to a statement by Brian Payne, special agent in charge at the IRS Criminal Investigation Tampa Field Office, the Washington Examiner reported.

According to prosecutors, Mr. Harding made three monetary transactions after he obtained the relief funding. Each transaction involved more than $10,000. One of these was made to his joint bank account and another payment was made to his credit card. A third transaction involved a payment to the bank account of a third-party business entity.

Mr. Harding will serve an additional two years of supervised release, on top of his six-month prison sentence, of which he will serve at least four months, local media reported.

The wire fraud charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.

Federal prosecutors, however, have acknowledged that he is deserving of a reduced prison sentence due to showing remorse for his actions. Mr. Harding apologized to his family and supporters after the sentencing, saying he had no one to blame but himself.

“I want to express my remorse for the decisions and failures I’ve made,” Mr. Harding said.

“Harding readily confessed to his misconduct and provided law enforcement with information about how he ended up committing these crimes. In doing so, Harding did not minimize his own culpability or attempt to shirk responsibility for defrauding the SBA,” according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Keen.

In addition, prosecutors also noted that the loans were repaid by Mr. Harding within weeks of his initial interview with police, but decided a prison sentence was still applicable as a deterrent.

“A reasonable variance below the guideline range is probably appropriate. But a term of prison is still necessary to accomplish [federal sentencing factors] and the goals of sentencing – namely, general deterrence,” Keen wrote in court documents filed on the day of sentencing.

Mr. Harding is due to begin his sentence by Jan. 29, 2024, by which date he must surrender to authorities.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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