TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed an executive order that set dates in 2023 for a special election in House District 24, presently vacant of representation in the state Legislature following the resignation of Rep. Joseph Harding (R-Williston).
Harding, 35, resigned Dec. 8 after he was indicted earlier that week by a federal grand jury as part of a scheme to defraud the Small Business Administration’s emergency COVID-19 loans.
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According to the U.S. Justice Department, Harding made bank accounts for dormant business entities and used them to apply for Economic Injury Disaster Loans from the SBA. He’s accused of obtaining and attempting to obtain over $150,000, deposited into two accounts.
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Harding was elected to the Florida House in 2020 and won his reelection in November. He’s known for introducing HB 1557 during his time as a lawmaker, the “Parental Rights in Education” bill that critics dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” The proposal sought to prevent the discussion of sexual topics, including sexual orientation and gender identity, in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms.
Such topics were to also be banned in other classrooms if not discussed in an “age-appropriate” way, according to the bill’s text. Opponents of the bill called it an extreme approach with vague language that could be used to erase LGBTQ+ representation in schools outright. The bill became law in March and took effect July 1.
Concerning the SBA loan scheme, Harding faces charges of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements, according to the indictment. In a statement made on a Facebook page of Harding’s, now publicly inaccessible, he said he had fully repaid what he owed.
“I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested,” Harding said.
DeSantis in EO 22-278 ordered a special primary election for Harding’s seat to be held March 7, 2023, with a special general election set for May 16 if necessary. The text of the order described Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd as being responsible for implementing other scheduling requirements for the election.
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