Former Florida state rep who sponsored ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill breaks silence after prison sentence: ‘Dark days’

FIRST ON FOX: A former Florida Republican state representative who shot to national prominence after sponsoring a parental rights bill Democrats referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill spoke to Fox News Digital in his first major interview since being sentenced to prison for wire fraud.

Joe Harding, who served as a Florida state representative until stepping down last December, was sentenced to four months in prison earlier this year after the government alleged he “betrayed the public trust” by fraudulently obtaining COVID relief funds in the form of a business loan. 

Harding told Fox News Digital he takes full responsibility for his actions and that the story has been misrepresented by many media outlets, making the situation even more difficult. 

“It’s been pretty brutal to watch,” Harding said. Something that I’ve done from the beginning is take responsibility. I’ve tried to do that even with all of the political arrows and pretty brutal coverage that I have had on this. At the end of the day, I blame myself for the mistakes I made that just put me in a position to be criticized.”

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Florida state Rep. Joe Harding listens during a Local Administration and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee hearing in a legislative session Jan. 13, 2022, in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

Harding explained that his legal problems arose when his brother-in-law, whom he says “committed pretty massive fraud totaling over $8 million,” approached him during a vulnerable time of his life in 2020 and misled him into getting involved in a scheme where false information was included on a COVID loan form. 

“I was not aware what he was doing, but I listened. I listened to him and, you know, allowed myself to get influenced and really, in many ways, get conned and manipulated by him,” Harding said. “That would be the right way to put it, and he actually applied for the loans with my permission to apply for a loan. But he knew how to do the work, knew how to manipulate it.

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“Unfortunately, you know, I allowed him, but he walked me into this issue. And I think that’s probably the hardest thing, you know, through this process, is that you don’t shed blame, I’m not shedding blame, but I think the judge said it pretty clearly in the sentencing hearing that, you know, he doesn’t believe that I’d be in this position if it wasn’t for my brother-in-law.”

Joe Harding

Joe Harding (Courtesy Rep. Joe Harding)

Harding’s brother-in-law, Patrick Parker Walsh, was sentenced to five years in federal prison for wire fraud and money laundering in February. 

Harding told Fox News Digital he did not personally benefit financially from the $150,000 loan, and it was fully paid back more than two years before he was prosecuted. 

Harding shot to national prominence last year when he sponsored a parental rights bill in Florida that supporters say gave parents more of a say in what their young children are being told about sexuality in school by prohibiting classroom instruction on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” with children in third grade or younger, “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

The bill sparked a national firestorm as Democrats and media outlets quickly dubbed the bill “Don’t Say Gay” legislation despite the word gay not appearing anywhere in the bill’s text.

While Harding made it clear he takes responsibility for his actions, he acknowledged there was a “desire” for the media to “beat me up” over his legal issues.

“It almost made it in a way much more significant than probably a regular state legislator would have something like this reported,” Harding said. 

Harding said one of the more “brutal” parts that affected his family the most was the media’s inaccurate reporting on the severity of his legal problems. 

“When the media reports that you’re facing 20 years or 25 years, you know, basic legal things that any reporter could have spent just a little bit of time understanding how the guidelines work, how something works. And I understand it’s clickbait, but family and friends are reading from mainstream reports that you would typically hope to trust. Probably the worst is that I’ve had reporters write articles with dramatic exaggerations of charges, of amounts,” Harding said. 

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Harding said he hopes his situation will serve as a warning to others in elected office about “taking responsibility.” He said he will “use this as an opportunity to remind and encourage folks that are in public office or are interested in public office to really understand the magnitude of the position you’re putting yourself in … and making sure that you are incredibly careful about who you surround yourself with.”

Ultimately, Harding said, he is “proud” of the work he did in office.

Photo of Florida Rep. Joe Harding

Florida lawmaker Joe Harding (Rep. Joe Harding)

When I ran, I could have never imagined that I would be sponsoring a bill that would change the national attention and, you know, have the president’s press secretary talking about it and have the White House’s Twitter account saying that they were going to do whatever they could to overturn it. What I did is pretty surreal,” Harding said.

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Harding didn’t rule out a role as a public servant in some capacity after he reports to prison early next year and serves his sentence, telling Fox News Digital he will take the “catastrophic weakness” that allowed him to be negatively influenced as a learning experience to help others.

“This is obviously something that really makes you look in the mirror and really question yourself in every way,” Harding explained. “I think to go through something like this makes you question everything you know about yourself, and why are you here? What are you doing with the voices in your head that, you know, just there in darkness are so powerful?

“I will take the experience that I went through and some really, really, really dark days that I went through, and I will use that to not just make myself more resilient but to use my uniquely having to go through this to be able to … hopefully help others through similar circumstances … of their own fault or not.”

Fox News Digital’s Jessica Chasmar contributed to this report

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