Prosecutors seek prison time for former State Rep. Joseph Harding

Harding pleaded guilty to charges related to a COVID-19 relief scheme

FL Rep. Joseph Harding, R-Williston. (Florida House of Representatives)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Federal prosecutors are asking a judge to sentence a former Florida state representative to prison time after he pleaded guilty to fraudulently collecting about $150,000 in COVID-19 relief funds intended to help small businesses.

Joseph Harding, who once represented Florida’s 22nd District which includes parts of Marion County, resigned from the Florida House of Representatives in December after he was indicted by a federal grand jury.

Harding pleaded guilty in March to wire fraud, which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence. He also pleaded guilty to money laundering and making false statements.

Harding’s sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 11.

[EXCLUSIVE: Become a News 6 Insider (it’s FREE) | PINIT! Share your photos]

The former state representative admitted he created bank accounts for two dormant businesses and used them to fraudulently apply for pandemic relief loans from the Small Business Administration.

In court papers filed Thursday, federal prosecutors argued Harding deserves to be sentenced to prison but did not request a specific length of incarceration.

“Harding’s intentional criminal acts while serving as an elected state representative signify a betrayal of the public’s trust,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin M. Keen wrote.

But federal prosecutors acknowledged that Harding may deserve less prison time than the guideline sentence outlined in Harding’s presentence investigation report, which has not been publicly disclosed.

“Harding readily confessed to his misconduct and provided law enforcement with information about how he ended up committing these crimes,” Keen wrote. “In doing so, Harding did not minimize his own culpability or attempt to shirk responsibility for defrauding the SBA.”

Prosecutors noted that Harding repaid the SBA within weeks of his initial interview with law enforcement.

“A reasonable variance below the guideline range is probably appropriate,” wrote Keen. “But a term of prison is still necessary to accomplish [federal sentencing factors] and the goals of sentencing – namely, general deterrence.”

Harding’s brother-in-law, Patrick Walsh, was sentenced in January to more than five years in prison after pleading guilty to wire fraud and money laundering as part of a pandemic-related loan fraud scheme, court records show.

Harding had just started his second term in the Florida House of Representatives when he was indicted. He’s best known for sponsoring the Parental Rights in Education law, known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.


A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Assistant U.S. Attorney who drafted the government’s court filing.

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.