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Florida lawmaker charged with Covid relief fraud

<i>Wilfredo Lee/AP/FILE</i><br/>Florida state Rep. Joe Harding
Wilfredo Lee/AP/FILE
Florida state Rep. Joe Harding

By Hannah Rabinowitz and Jack Forrest, CNN

Federal prosecutors announced charges Wednesday against a Florida state representative who allegedly swindled thousands of dollars in coronavirus relief loans from the Small Business Administration.

State Rep. Joseph Harding obtained more than $150,000 in SBA loans by lying on his loan applications, according to a news release from the Justice Department. Prosecutors allege Harding listed dormant business entities on his applications, fabricated the numbers of people he employed and submitted fake bank statements.

Harding, 35, is set to go to trial for charges of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements, DOJ said in the release. A wire fraud conviction carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, while money laundering and making false statements carry a maximum of 10 and five years, respectively.

His trial is set for January 11 in Gainesville, Florida.

Harding was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2020. He still holds the public office, according to his website.

CNN has reached out to Harding’s office for comment.

In a statement to the The New York Times, he said he had pleaded not guilty during an initial court appearance Wednesday. “I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested,” Harding told the Times.

The Florida Republican has drawn the national spotlight before, as a sponsor of the controversial legislation that banned certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom that opponents dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The legislation officially named the “Parental Rights in Education” law, signed by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in March, set off a national firestorm and drew immediate pushback from LGBTQ advocates.

Investigators have said that billions of dollars of Covid-19 relief funds have been obtained using fabricated, stolen or fake information. The Justice Department’s Covid-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force has brought several high-profile fraud cases across the country.

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