Coffee with Harding
Former State Rep. Joseph Harding at the Ocala Parade of Champions in Ocala, Fla. on Saturday, March 26, 2022. [supplied]
A week after his sentencing on federal charges, former State Rep. Joe Harding agreed to share with the “Gazette” his reflections on what led to his rapid rise and fall in the local and state political arena.
On Oct. 19, U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor handed Harding a four-month prison sentence and two years of probation after Harding pleaded guilty in March to charges of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements to the federal Small Business Administration in order to receive a $150,000 pandemic-relief loan in the name of The Vak Shack Inc.
The company did not have any business activity in 2019 or 2020, which was a criterion for obtaining the COVID-19 relief funds. Harding applied for a second loan for another defunct business but later abandoned efforts to obtain it.
Winsor ordered Harding to surrender to serve his sentence by Jan. 29. Harding said he does not yet know where he will serve his time.
The 36-year-old Marion County Republican resigned from the House after being indicted late last year following a momentous legislative session that brought him national publicity for spearheading a parental rights bill that critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay’’ bill.
Brett Doster of Front Line Agency, a longtime Republican political operative and one of the friends who addressed the judge on Harding’s behalf during the sentencing hearing, pointed out that Harding had been cooperative throughout the process despite having received a lot of advice to fight the charges and make it political.
When Harding was asked by the “Gazette” why he chose to cooperate with authorities instead of going that route, he answered, “We live in a very partisan time where everything could be made out to be a partisan issue, but that’s just not how I operate.”
During the sentencing hearing, one of the federal prosecutors responded to the character testimony the judge was considering with the rhetorical statement, “We didn’t charge Harding with not being a nice guy.”
Harding said he feels a person needs to acknowledge their wrongdoing, no matter what it was, so that they could move past it. “I just wasn’t going to be a victim or make excuses,” he added.
Did Harding feel that being a public official made his case worse?
“I don’t think I made it any easier on myself being a public person and putting myself in this situation,” Harding said. “But no, I think obviously because of the publicity I’ve gotten on past issues that I still believe in, I’ve made myself more open to taking criticism for the mistakes I’ve made.”
Patrick Parker Walsh, a brother-in-law of Harding, also pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering related to pandemic relief and was sentenced in January to more than five years in prison.
According to Harding, the big differences between Walsh’s case and his own were the amount of money involved and that Harding repaid the money he received illegally.
“He’s a con,’’ Harding said of Walsh. “He stole $8 million without the intent to ever pay it back. I don’t think he’s ever met someone he’s not willing to con. Even family. With that said, I’m not saying he blindly conned me, so I’m not making an excuse.”
Harding said he would not be surprised to learn one day that his brother-in-law continued to try to con people even after being released from prison.
Harding said it wasn’t until he was questioned by the authorities about Walsh’s fraudulent loans that he realized the scope of them, acknowledged his own bad position and began to work to repay the loan he took for The Vak Shack.
During the sentencing hearing, Harding’s attorney said his client’s actions were “a moment of weakness during a financial strain.”
In December 2020, when Harding took the loan out, he was in business with Walsh “improving properties.” Harding said he was struggling financially at the time after placing so much energy into his 2020 political campaign.
“We had a small business, we had four children,’’ he said. “I had just gone through a tough primary battle where my business was significantly impacted.”
Around this time, he said, Walsh suggested using COVID-19 relief loans to help finance business operations. “But I always looked at it as a loan,’’ Harding said, “and I have always paid back money I’ve borrowed.”
Harding said the money was used to make payroll and meet business expenses, not to fund extravagances.
He paid the loan back before charges were brought against him. He said he had hoped that doing so, along with his cooperation with investigators, would help keep him out of prison.
“I have nothing negative to say about the federal prosecutors or judge,” said Harding, but added that he was “shocked” by his sentence. “Mostly because of the way I felt I cooperated. But at the end of the day, it was within their rights, and I don’t fault them and respect their judgment.”
When issuing Harding’s sentence, the judge called the case a sad one, acknowledging the cooperation and remorse of Harding. Ultimately, the judge kept returning to an aggravating factor to the crime: the loans were issued by the government during a crisis. The judge felt the sentence needed to serve as a deterrent to that behavior.
Harding’s lawyer, John Lauro, argued without success that removing Harding from his young family for any period of time was not commensurate with the crime he confessed to.
When asked what he learned through this judicial process, Harding acknowledged his own naivety about the way he initially spoke openly and honestly to investigators as maybe not having helped him in the long run as much as he’d hoped.
“I also learned it [the judicial process] moves painfully slow. I learned that it’s not based on consumer reviews or consumer feedback. Justice is unlike anything you’ll ever experience. It’s 100% on their terms in every way. I have a lot of respect for it and those who work in the process, both prosecutors and on the defense side.”
Harding expressed thankfulness for the support of his wife and extended family. He noted that 10 of his 11 siblings, along with his parents, were at the sentencing hearing.
Harding lamented the high price he’s paying because he didn’t seek advice from his usual reliable counselors when he found himself under financial strain in December 2020.
“Something I’ve learned through his process is that it’s best to keep your circle of trust really small with only people who have proven to be trustworthy and have your best interests at heart. And, don’t ignore red flags or your gut,’’ he said.
It’s been overwhelming at times how supportive people are being. Of course, I could get in my glass house and there have been folks who have been really quiet, which has been really hard.”
The silence of some has hurt Harding, but he acknowledged, “I don’t know how I would have reacted if I was in their position.”
Harding acknowledged that critics of the controversial parental rights bill seem to think his fall from grace is karmic justice. This is the second “Gazette” interview during which Harding denies that the intention of his bill was to enact “anti-gay” legislation only “pro-parent.”
“The parental rights bill wasn’t just for straight parents; it was for gay parents, too,’’ he said. “If any of the activists had spoken to me while we were working on the bill, I think they would have found me different than how they painted me.”
Harding blames click bait-type news reporting with twisting that legislation into something hateful and misunderstood. “I think Americans are smart, I think people understand when reading news that oftentimes reports are biased,” he said.
Meanwhile, Harding continues to receive angry messages through social media related to the parental rights bill and his recent criminal case.
Looking back, Harding said he does not regret running for office. He remains proud of what he accomplished during his short time in office and regrets not being able to do more.
“It’s harder to make changes than I thought it would be,” he said. “Putting myself in this situation to have this terrible failure when I was really gaining traction in the Legislature; there were things I hadn’t even been able to scratch the surface on, and that is something I have to live with.”
Harding admitted that watching from afar over the past year the Legislature address subjects he’d hoped to champion, such as constitutional firearm carry rights, has been hard. The added irony is now he is a convicted felon, he is restricted from owning a gun.
However, the rights Harding lost, such as to own a gun, vote, or run for office, are things he could choose to apply to the State of Florida for clemency after his sentence is complete to consider for restoration.
“I think I’ve had some lessons learned that I hope to be able to help others with,’’ he said. “I do not want my case and everything that has happened to me to define me. I think it just defines where I am right now. I hope other elected officials see my case and take away that they need to take extra care in their personal and business dealings because they have to set an example.
“I don’t want this to deter great everyday people from running for office because I do think that is the only way we restore some normalcy to the election process,” he added.
Harding said he continues to have the desire to serve, but he’s not sure in what capacity he will do that in the future.
Harding has always felt like Levy and Marion counties were “home” and has no intention of moving from them.
Through his personal Facebook page, Harding has publicly asked for the community’s forgiveness, but he’s also received a lot of encouragement. In a Sept. 19 post to Facebook acknowledging those who had been kind to him during this period, he wrote, “I have let so many down, including myself, and I have and will do all I can to make it right. As I can, I will continue thanking each of you and I hope God uses me to encourage someone else when they feel completely beat down.”
The post received at least 376 reactions and drew 114 encouraging comments; notably, some were from elected officials.
Marion County Commissioner Michelle Stone wrote, “Amen Joe. He is a God of second, third and thousands of chances! Your story isn’t over. He’s not finished until its good. Much love to you and your family.”
Marion County School Board member Nancy Thrower wrote, “I saw who you really are when you visited Hillcrest School with me. We’ve all been The Least of These, and we are all worthy of love and redemption.”
Marion County School Board member Allison Campbell wrote, “It was so good to see you today! You know we can’t just believe parts of scripture… we believe it all, and the Word says “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Your latter days will be greater than the former.”
Ocala city council member Ire Bethea, Sr. wrote, “Heads up, God is a forgiving God.”
Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn wrote, “Genesis 50:20. What men meant for evil God meant for good. Something good will come out of it. I’m praying for you.”