MARION COUNTY, Fla. – A Central Florida state representative was indicted by a federal grand jury this week as part of a scheme to defraud the Small Business Administration’s emergency coronavirus loans.
State Rep. Joseph Harding, R-Williston, represents part of Marion County, including Ocala.
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The U.S. Department of Justice said Harding, 35, created bank accounts for dormant business entities and used them to apply for SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans. The indictment accuses Harding of obtaining and attempting to obtain more than $150,000 from the SBA, which was deposited into two bank accounts.
One of the businesses, The Vak Shack Inc., was created in 2014 and was deemed inactive when it did not file an annual report in 2018, according to the state. It was reinstated on Dec. 16, 2020.
The other business, Harding Farms, was created in 2016, and was also deemed inactive after failing to file an annual report in 2018, according to state records. The business was reinstated on Dec. 18, 2020.
“This is very serious, and the people who have committed similar crimes coming out of the pandemic have gone to prison,” News 6 political analyst Jim Clark said.
The indictment says Harding claimed the businesses were active in 2019 and 2020, when they were not. The SBA loan applications were submitted between Dec. 18, 2020 and Dec. 21, 2020, according to the indictment.
Harding is facing charges of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements. The wire fraud charge alone has a maximum federal prison sentence of 20 years. The money laundering charge has a maximum prison sentence of 10 years in federal prison.
“I think the federal government is hoping by doing high-profile cases, they can discourage this kind of thing in the future,” Clark said.
Harding is considered a leader in the Republican Party in Florida. He was first elected to office in November 2020. He was the author of the Parental Rights in Education Law, known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” Law, last year.
Harding issued a statement on his Facebook page, saying he pleaded not guilty and had already repaid the loan.
“I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested,” he wrote.
Harding added that on the advice of counsel, he will not be saying anything more specific right now.
“Did he repay it before he knew he was being investigated and wanted to get that out of the way?” Clark asked. “I think the timing of repaying the loan is going to be crucial in this case.”
Harding was recently named vice chair of the Florida House Health and Human Services Committee, and vice chair of the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.
House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, has removed Harding from all of his committee assignments.
“I am temporarily removing him from his committee assignments to allow him time to focus on this matter. In America, we adhere to the rule of law, and as such, Representative Harding is presumed innocent and will have the opportunity to plead his case before a court,” Renner said in a statement.
Harding made his first appearance at U.S. Courthouse in Gainesville Wednesday and was released ahead of a trial, which is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 11 at 8:30 a.m.
SBA loan fraud investigations in Florida
Harding’s case is not the only high-profile investigation involving SBA loan fraud in the state.
Last week, former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg was sentenced to 11 years in prison for six federal charges, including a similar scheme to defraud the SBA.
As part of a plea deal, Greenberg cooperated with federal authorities on other criminal investigations, including an investigation into COVID-19 relief fraud.
Greenberg’s assistance has led to at least one other arrest.
In court, prosecutors and Greenberg’s attorney indicated two other arrests related to the SBA fraud scheme would be coming soon.
However, we do not know whether Greenberg’s assistance led to Harding’s prosecution.
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