Former Florida Republican lawmaker Joe Harding, who authored the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, could face up to 35 years in prison after pleading guilty on Tuesday to federal charges of fraud.
Harding, 35, has been accused of obtaining $150,000 in COVID-19 relief funds through a fraudulent scheme. His anti-LGBTQ legislation, known as the Parental Rights in Education Act, was signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
In response to the charges and his subsequent resignation from the legislature, Nadine Smith, the executive director of Equality Florida, said: “So much harm to students, parents and teachers because of his raw political ambitions. He slandered entire communities and trafficked in lie after lie that has emboldened violent bigotry. He will have his day in court but his legacy is already a despicable one.”
Harding, however, remained unrepentant in a statement Tuesday, saying: “During the past legislative session I have felt the support of millions of Americans while fighting for our shared concerns and for the rights of parents. I will never forget the support I received from every corner of this great country.”
Harding is due to be sentenced in July.
But that isn’t the only legal jeopardy facing members of the Harding family.
“Harding’s indictment follows a September guilty plea from his brother-in-law, Patrick Walsh,” Florida Politics reported in December. “As reported by Fresh Take Florida, Walsh pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering charges connected to his receipt of nearly $8 million in disaster relief loans.”
Harding also joins other Republican lawmakers who were caught defrauding the public in various ways during the pandemic.
Patricia “Tricia” Ashton Derges, 64, a Missouri State Representative, was found guilty of 10 counts of wire fraud, 10 counts of distributing drugs over the internet without a valid prescription, and two counts of making false statements to a federal law enforcement agent last June.
“Derges betrayed the confidence entrusted in her as both an elected lawmaker and an assistant physician,” said Charles Dayoub, Special Agent in Charge of FBI Kansas City. “She took advantage of a global pandemic to benefit herself financially with complete disregard, not only to her constituents, but to the oath she took as a health care professional to do no harm. Today’s verdict, decided by a jury of her peers, is a direct message to those who wish to profit on the backs of others: the FBI will vigorously pursue any individual who abuses their position of power and the trust of Missourians for their own gain.”
Derges was convicted of three counts of wire fraud related to her attempt to fraudulently receive nearly $900,000 in CARES Act funds. Derges actually was awarded $296,574 in CARES Act funds for Lift Up, although Lift Up did not provide any COVID-19 testing services to its patients. In fact, Lift Up’s medical clinic closed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and remained closed from March to June 2020.
On top of that, she was convicted for a fraud scheme involving a fake stem cell treatment she marketed and sold to unsuspecting people at her clinic and on the internet.
Michael Capps, a former Kansas legislator was found guilty of COVID related fraud last year as well.
There are other examples.
Ironically, the GOP led House Oversight Committee was called out recently for blatant partisanship when they decided to focus all of their efforts into looking at 3 Democratic controlled states exclusively in COVID fraud matters.
Citing a report from the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the state of Arizona paid $1.6 billion in unemployment benefits to individuals with stolen identities and Louisiana dispersed more than $1 million to individuals after they died. In Comer’s home state of Kentucky, she pointed out, state employees had applied for unemployment benefits while still employed by the state and were able to access the state’s information management system and lift holds on their own accounts.
“None of these states have been put under investigation by this committee,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I find it very interesting because as was stated at the beginning, the bipartisan nature of oversight is what gives it its power.”
AOC stated that she was ready, willing, and able to look into any fraudulent activities, regardless of party origins, but stressed bipartisanship and fairness need to be part of any investigation.
Comer responded to AOC’s statement by welcoming investigations into all 50 states, including his home state of Kentucky.
Despite Comer’s statement, the committee has not expanded their investigation as of yet.