Ex-Rep. Harding sentenced to four months

He had pleaded guilty to fraudulently applying for business loans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A federal judge Thursday sentenced former state Rep. Joe Harding to four months in prison after he pleaded guilty to fraudulently applying for business loans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harding, an Ocala Republican who drew national attention in 2022 when he sponsored a bill that restricted instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, is expected to start the prison term on Jan. 29, according to a court document.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, who held a hearing in Gainesville, also sentenced Harding to two years of supervised release after he leaves prison, the document said.

Harding pleaded guilty in March to charges of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements.

The charges, in part, involved providing false information in December 2020 to the federal Small Business Administration to receive a $150,000 pandemic-relief loan in the name of The Vak Shack Inc., a company that did not have any business activity in 2019 or 2020, a March court document said. Harding also was accused of fraudulently seeking a loan for another business, though that loan was turned down.

Harding, 36, was first elected to the House in 2020 and was re-elected without opposition in 2022 in Marion County’s House District 24. But he was indicted by a federal grand jury a short time after his re-election and resigned from office in December 2022.

In a sentencing memorandum filed in August, prosecutors argued that Harding should go to prison after “bilking the federal government of $150,000.”

“Harding’s professional accomplishments and contributions to the community are commendable. However, the (sentencing) guidelines ‘authorize no special sentencing discounts on account of economic or social status,’” the Aug. 31 memorandum said, partially quoting a legal precedent. “Moreover, Harding’s intentional criminal acts while serving as an elected state representative signify a betrayal of the public’s trust.”

But Harding also received support, including from one of his brothers, Samuel, who wrote a lengthy letter to Winsor in June.

“Your honor, you are interacting with Joe for a short and monumental amount of time,” Samuel Harding wrote in the letter, which is part of the court file. “I assure you he has never dodged his responsibility. Joe has learned from this and is dealing with the dire consequences of his actions. I’m confident he will not re-offend. He has already illustrated full transparency.”

Patrick Parker Walsh, a brother-in-law of Harding, also pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering related to pandemic relief and was sentenced in January to more than five years in prison, according to a January news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida.

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