Prosecutors want former Rep. Joe Harding to serve some time in prison over charges he committed fraud to secure pandemic-era bailouts. But officials concede the Ocala Republican’s willingness to pay back the money and admit wrongdoing deserves some consideration.
Harding earned national notoriety as the author of Florida’s controversial “parental rights” law forbidding instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Keen filed a sentencing memo asking the courts to put the disgraced lawmaker behind bars. Federal guidelines and sentencing in similar cases suggest Harding should spend eight to 14 months in federal prison. But Keen said Harding’s cooperation with investigators may warrant cutting him some slack.
“In this case, the need for general deterrence is the most important factor, and it weighs in favor of a guideline sentence,” Keen wrote. “However, the Government acknowledges that mitigating circumstances — including Harding’s genuine remorse and exceptional acceptance of responsibility — may warrant a downward variance.”
A federal grand jury in December indicted Harding on charges related to seeking and obtaining a loan through a federal program designed to assist businesses crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Harding quickly resigned his seat in the Florida House. In March, he pleaded guilty to wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements.
“I deeply regret my actions that led to these charges,” he said in a public statement after his guilty plea. “I let down my family, my constituents and those who have supported me over the years. I have only myself to blame. The greatest honor of my life was representing my hometown and my constituents in the Florida House.
“I have met thousands of you; we have met at church, your front porch or the grocery store and for two years I gave you my all, representing our common values and not backing down on core principles I believe in with all my heart. 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. All I can do now is focus on the future and making this wrong right.”
If Harding fought charges and was found guilty in federal court, he faced up to 20 years in prison for each wire fraud charge, as well as 10 years for each money laundering conviction and up to 5 years for every charge of false statements.
For admitting his wrongs, and for fully paying back $150,000 in wrongfully obtained dollars, Keen said judges should give Harding some credit.
“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.”
In one humorous footnote in a court filing, Keen wrote “Yes, you are still reading the Government’s sentencing memorandum.”
But the prosecutor said it’s important that Harding’s sentence include hard time. That’s especially critical given that Harding held public office. Keen’s memo cited a West Virginia case in which an appellate judge was found guilty of wire fraud and obstructing justice.
“The seriousness of the offense is exacerbated by another fact: at the time of the false applications, Harding was a state Representative,” the memo reads.
“Fraud committed by public officials, ‘even for relatively minor gains, impose a tremendous social cost when finally exposed, for they weaken the public’s trust and confidence in government and breed a cynicism that only encourages more crime, more corruption, and more wrongdoing.’”
Keen also stressed the importance of judges imposing strong sentences against white-collar criminals.
“Although the PPP and EIDL programs are over, there is unfortunately no shortage of people who look to take advantage of government programs, such as disaster assistance programs, federal tax credits, or health care benefit programs,” the memo reads.
“A sentence within the guideline range would send the message to others — including those elected to public office — that defrauding the federal government will result in significant deprivation of liberty and not merely the inconvenience of probation.”
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