Former Florida Republican state lawmaker Joe Harding, the architect of Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law, has been sentenced to four months in prison and faces two years of supervised release. Here’s the full story.
The Fall of a Lawmaker
His conviction stems from the fraudulent acquisition of $150,000 in COVID relief funds, all while championing the law that restricts discussions of LGBTQ+ topics in schools.
The Deceptive Act
Harding, a 36-year-old former member of the Florida House of Representatives, resigned in December after a federal grand jury indicted him on charges of felony wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements.
Betrayal of Public Trust
In March, he pled guilty to these charges, a decision that could have led to a maximum sentence of 35 years behind bars.
The core of his criminal activities revolved around defrauding the Small Business Administration during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How Harding Exploited COVID-19 Aid for Personal Gain
Harding submitted an Economic Injury Disaster Loan application to secure funds for two inactive businesses.
Subsequently, he redirected some of these funds into his personal bank account, a third-party business, and to settle his credit card debt.
IRS Speaks Out
Brian J. Payne, Special Agent of the IRS Office of Criminal Investigation in Tampa, Florida, didn’t mince words in response to Harding’s actions.
Payne stated, “Mr. Harding egregiously betrayed the public trust by stealing from COVID relief funds meant to help the very people who elected him.”
The Impact of Deception
It’s a reminder that when greed intertwines with public service, the consequences can be dire.
Greed in Public Service
In a time when the country was grappling with the devastating effects of a pandemic, the misappropriation of funds intended to aid the most vulnerable members of society is seen by many as a betrayal of the highest order.
The “Don’t Say Gay” Law
Perhaps what makes this case more concerning is Harding’s role as the architect of the “Don’t Say Gay” law, officially known as the “Parental Rights in Education Act.”
This law initially prohibited any discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3. Subsequently, it was expanded to encompass all grade levels. Similar laws are now in place in six other states.
Harding, the Face of the “Don’t Say Gay” Law, Unmasked
Harding had repeatedly maintained that his law was not driven by anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments but rather a desire to create boundaries in the school curriculum.
He argued that such limitations were necessary to guide educators and school districts.
The Hypocrisy Exposed
Despite these assertions, a closer look at Harding’s own rhetoric reveals a stark contrast.
In a March 2022 Twitter post, he alleged that opponents of “Don’t Say Gay” aimed to “take away [parent’s] rights, sexualize your 6-year-olds, and lie to you.”
Such statements added fuel to the already fiery debate surrounding LGBTQ+ rights in schools.
Right-Wing Support Amplifies Harding’s Anti-LGBTQ+ Agenda
Right-wing voices shared Harding’s claims about LGBTQ+ people and educators “sexualizing” children and infringing on parental rights through “indoctrination,” amplifying the controversy.
Congressional Republicans have introduced a federal “Don’t Say Gay” bill, though it faces formidable opposition in the Democrat-led Senate.
“Moms for Liberty”
Harding had publicly praised the group “Moms for Liberty,” a self-proclaimed “parent’s rights” organization that has actively sought to remove LGBTQ+ inclusive books and school policies.
LGBTQ+ Advocacy in the Crosshairs
The Southern Poverty Law Center designated “Moms for Liberty” as an extremist group in June, further highlighting the divisive nature of the debates surrounding LGBTQ+ issues in education.
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