The Florida House of Representatives is down a member following the resignation of former Rep. Joe Harding following his federal indictment on fraud charges. Harding sponsored the “Parental Rights in Education” or “Don’t Say Gay” bill from the 2022 session that became law in July.
But the effects of the legislation will continue without him as state agencies including the Department of Education work to uphold the measure that advocates say targets LGBTQ+ students and educators.
Next Wednesday, the Florida Board of Education is slated to discuss whether policies in 10 school districts are violating parental-notification requirements outlined under the law.
The law has two major functions: to ban discussions of LGBTQ+ topics from Pre-K through 3rd grade or in a manner that is not “age-appropriate” in higher grades, and to require parental notification if there is a “change in the student’s services.”
The school boards identified as potentially being in conflict with the law are Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and a special school district for the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind.
The Board of Education flagged its interest in LGBTQ+ policies during a September meeting, when board member Ryan Petty expressed “grave concerns” that some district policies were not in compliance with the law.
According to letters sent to these districts on Nov. 18, the Board of Education is urging them to reevaluate policies they’ve adopted to accommodate LGBTQ+ students and make sure they “comply with revised Florida law and State Board of Education rule.”
“Florida parents have a right to be fully informed of the education and educational services being provided to their students,” Jacob Oliva, senior chancellor for the department, said in his letters to the districts.
Policies under evaluation permit transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, require teachers and staff to use a student’s chosen name, and wait for a student’s consent before discussing their sexual orientation or gender identity with a parent, according to the letters sent to districts.
So, while Harding will be busy sorting out the federal indictment, the Board of Education will be deciding how to enforce the measures laid out in the former House member’s law. He faces counts of alleged wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements arising from applications for federal COVID-relief loans plus related charges. He has entered a not-guilty plea.
A vacant seat
House Speaker Paul Renner responded to Harding’s resignation in a written statement Wednesday.
“After further consultation with Rep. Harding, I understand and respect his decision to submit his resignation. Any questions about his case should be directed to his legal counsel,” the statement reads.
“The Florida House remains focused on next week’s all-important special session on property insurance, hurricane recovery, and toll relief.”
[Harding has been indicted on charges of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements in an alleged scheme to defraud the Small Business Association and obtain coronavirus-related business loans, the News Service of Florida reported.]
Harding’s seat will likely be vacant for the special session and it’s not clear when it will be filled. Florida law leaves it to the governor to declare when a special election should be held to fill a vacant seat. The Phoenix reached out to the governor’s office to see what Gov. Ron DeSantis has in mind but hasn’t yet received a response.
–Danielle J. Brown, Florida Phoenix
Forida Republican Rep. Joe Harding charged in six-count indictment with pandemic aid fraud
December 8–State Rep. Joe Harding has resigned from the Legislature following his indictment.
“Today, effective immediately, I am resigning from my position as the State Representative of House District 24,” he said in a note posted on Facebook.
“When I decided to run in in 2019 for the Florida House, I did so for two simple reasons: I love people, and I love Florida. Today, I am resigning from my position for the same two reasons: I love people, and I love Florida. 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,” he wrote.
“During the 2022 legislative cycle, when I was under incredible heat regarding my defense of Florida’s parents and families, many were frustrated that I didn’t respond to every critic in the media. I didn’t respond to every critic because the critics were not my constituents. Florida’s families were, and in this instance, they still are,” he added.
“Regarding the current legal matter, I cannot comment on the details of my case. There will be a time when I can tell my story in detail, and I will. For now, let me reassure my constituents and the taxpayers that I repaid every penny of the loan I obtained, and I have done my best to cooperate fully with all authorities. That is all I will say for now, and I will communicate any additional details of my legal matter through my attorney.”
Joe Harding, the Florida House Republican who sponsored the Parental Rights in Education bill during the 2022 legislative session, has been indicted on six counts for alleged wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements that could put him behind bars for decades if found guilty.
According to a press release issued by the Dept. of Justice, the indictment alleges that between Dec. 1, 2020, and March 1, 2021, Harding committed two acts of wire fraud by participating in a scheme to defraud the Small Business Administration (SBA) and for obtaining coronavirus-related small business loans by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promises, “and for the purpose of executing such scheme, caused wire communications to be transmitted in interstate commerce.”
The indictment goes on to allege that Harding made and caused to be made false and fraudulent SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) applications and made false representations in supporting loan documentation in the names of “dormant business entities” submitted to the SBA.
The indictment further alleges that Harding obtained fraudulently created bank statements for one of the dormant business entities used as supporting documentation for one of his fraudulent EIDL loan applications. By this conduct, “the indictment alleges that Harding fraudulently obtained and attempted to obtain more than $150,000 in funds from the SBA to which he was not entitled.”
Harding is also charged with two counts of engaging in monetary transactions with funds derived from unlawful activity related to his transfer of the fraudulently obtained EIDL proceeds into two bank accounts, and two counts of making false statements to the SBA.
The maximum terms of imprisonment for wire fraud are 20 years; for money laundering 10 years, and making false statements 5 years, according to the Department of Justice.
Harding posted a statement Wednesday night on his Facebook page.
“Today, I pleaded not guilty to federal charges that state I improperly obtained and used an EIDL loan issued by the Small Business Administration. I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested.
“On advice from counsel, I will be unable to say anything more specific about the legal proceedings until a later date and refer any questions or concerns related to this matter to my attorney. I ask that you keep me and my family in your prayers as we work for a fair and just resolution. Thank you, and may God bless you.”
Loss of committee seats
Florida Speaker of the House Paul Renner released a statement saying that he will remove Harding from all his committee assignments.
“After consultation with Rep. Harding regarding his indictment, I am temporarily removing him from his committee assignments to allow him time to focus on this matter,” Renner said.
“In America, we adhere to the rule of law and, as such, Rep. Harding is presumed innocent and will have the opportunity to plead his case before a court. Since the indictment does not relate to any aspect of his legislative duties, any further questions should be directed to his legal counsel.”
Harding, 35, was first elected to the Florida House representing parts of Levy and Marion counties in 2020 and won reelection last month. Renner named him to serve on six committees and as vice chair for two of them — Health & Human Services and PreK-12 Appropriations.
Harding was House sponsor during the 2022 session of the Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics. The law allows parents to sue if a school district withholds certain information about their child’s well-being or if their child is exposed to instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity deemed not “age-appropriate.”
Opponents said the legislation would have a chilling effect in Florida classrooms regarding LGBTQ issues and students. A lawsuit that challenged its constitutionality was tossed out by a federal judge in October but was refiled in federal court last month.
Harding’s trial is scheduled to take place on Jan. 11, 2023 at the U.S. courthouse in Gainesville before U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor.
–Mitch Perry, Florida Phoenix