Change of plea scheduled for Joe Harding
File photo: Rep. Joe Harding speaks during the Marion County Delegation at the Klein Conference Center at the College of Central Florida in Ocala, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.
A change of plea hearing has been set in the case of former State Rep. Joe Harding, who faces several federal charges related to allegations that he defrauded a pandemic-related government small business loan program.
The hearing, considered by legal experts as a routine matter in such cases, has been set for 4 p.m. March 21 at the U.S. Courthouse in Gainesville before District Judge Allen C. Winsor. The decision to change Harding’s plea was revealed during a March 6 status conference on the case. The case is currently set for trial on May 10.
Harding, an Ocala Republican who previously represented District 24, resigned the seat in December following a six-count indictment for wire fraud and other charges related to the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program.
Harding, who has previously pleaded not guilty to the charges, declined to comment on what that change of plea hearing could entail. However, a local attorney familiar with practicing criminal law in federal court said a change of plea hearing is common in federal criminal court.
“A defendant’s initial plea of not guilty is simply the first step after an indictment that allows the defendant and his attorney access to all of the facts and evidence gathered by the government,’’ explained the attorney, who did not wish to be identified. “Once that investigative information has been disclosed and reviewed by the defendant and counsel, if there is a likelihood of an adverse outcome at trial, the defendant may wish to change his not guilty plea to a plea of guilty or no contest. The ultimate charges agreed to as part of the plea agreement between the government and the defendant may result in the negotiation of relative legal positions and other factually mitigating factors.”
If the defendant is convicted, changing a plea earlier rather than later can sometimes work to a defendant’s benefit at sentencing, said the attorney.
“Often the government will agree to recommend a lesser sentence or punishment in exchange for an early resolution, as compared to a harsher recommendation that might be made if the defendant was found guilty at a trial,” the lawyer said.
Before issuing a sentence, the judge will review all the material facts and circumstances surrounding the case and the defendant; federal sentencing guidelines; recommendations for a sentence by the government and the defendant’s request for a specific sentence.
Sentences can range from a term of community control up to and including jail time, fines, and a term of probation.
According to the grand jury’s indictment, Harding applied for EIDL loans for two entities, The Vak Shack, Inc., an agricultural supply business in Williston, and Harding Farms, LLC., a 46-acre horse and cattle facility in Williston.
The indictment alleged that Harding falsely represented the number of employees and gross revenues for both entities and claimed they were active in 2019 and 2020 when they were not, and that Harding supported the false claims with “fraudulently created bank statements.”
Prosecutors allege the business entities had been dormant from May 2017 through Dec. 16, 2020, and therefore had no gross revenues for the 12 months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a necessary element of qualifying for the EIDL program.
Federal prosecutors are seeking a criminal conviction as well as forfeiture of any property, real and personal, derived from the proceeds of the loan transaction.
Harding was reelected without opposition to his second term in 2020. District 24 encompasses the central southwest quadrant of Marion County. A special election is set for May 16 to fill the vacancy.