Former State Rep. Harding pleads guilty to fraud charges

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Posted March 22, 2023 | By Jennifer Hunt Murty

Former State Rep. Joe Harding on Tuesday appeared in federal court to formally change his plea from not guilty to guilty on several counts related to fraudulently obtaining a pandemic-era Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL).

Harding, a rising Republican political star from Ocala who resigned the House seat in December following his indictment, is expected to be sentenced on July 25.

Harding appeared before District Judge Allen C. Winsor at the Northern District Federal Courthouse in Gainesville with only his attorney, Peg O’Connor, by his side as he was questioned by the judge under oath.

Judge Winsor asked Harding about his state of mind and whether anything was impairing his ability to make decisions. He also asked specifically about what his attorney had advised him were the consequences of pleading guilty to felony charges. Those include losing his right to vote, to own a gun, and to hold certain licenses.

Harding stated that he understood the consequences.

The judge then explained to Harding what the burden of proof would be for the government for each of the three counts of wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements. He asked Harding on each count, “If this case went to trial, would the state be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt your guilt?”

For each count, Harding answered, “Yes.”

Originally, duplicate counts were brought against Harding related to two entities for which he had applied for EIDL loans: The Vak Shack, Inc., an agricultural supply business in Williston, and Harding Farms, LLC., a 46-acre horse and cattle facility in Williston.

Harding pleaded guilty to the three associated with The Vak Shack, and under the plea agreement, the government is likely to drop the three other counts with the court’s approval.

Winsor explained to Harding the maximum sentence for wire fraud was 20 years and a $250,000 fine; for money laundering 10 years and a $250,000 fine; and for false statements, five years and a $250,000 fine.

However, the judge explained the sentences could be served concurrently and the sentence he would ultimately enter would be based on a federal sentencing scoresheet calculation after he reviewed all the material facts and circumstances surrounding the case and the defendant, prior criminal record, early acceptance of responsibility, and recommendations from the government and the defendant.

Federal sentencing guidelines are long and complicated to navigate. The sentencing scoresheet assists judges in developing a framework for a reasonable sentence.

“The scoring also helps keep sentencing more consistent whether you were sentenced in Florida or in Missouri,” explained – Gilbert Schaffnit, a criminal defense attorney who has practiced in state and federal courts for 45 years and is the President of the North Central Florida Chapter of the Federal Bar Association.

Schaffnit explained to the Gazette that an officer of the court would be preparing a report proposing a certain sentence range to the judge, and then the lawyers would argue or agree to the calculation before the judge sentences.

“This is unlike what you see in state criminal court, where a plea and sentencing can happen all in one hearing. In federal court no one can promise what the sentence will be when you enter a plea,” explained Schaffnit.

Schaffnit pointed to 18 U.S. Code § 3553 outlining what factors a judge considers when imposing a sentence. Those include the nature and circumstances of the offense, the seriousness of the offense, adequate deterrence to criminal conduct, and protecting the public from further crimes.

Schaffnit says the court is not bound by that sentencing table, and in the case of the crimes committed by Harding- there is no mandatory sentence.

Asked about the likelihood of Harding being sentenced to 35 years, Schaffnit dismissed the idea. “Highly unlikely. It would be extreme for a defendant with no criminal history to be sentenced to the maximum sentence. The sentence will be significantly less. And yet because of the reporting on the maximum sentences, the public may wrongly conclude there was some type of break- when there was none.”

After the hearing, Harding’s lawyer told reporters gathered outside the courtroom to reserve judgment until they heard the facts at the sentencing hearing.

Harding, in a statement following the hearing, wrote, “I deeply regret my actions that led to these charges. I let down my family, my constituents, and those who have supported me over the years. I have only myself to blame.”

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.

“All I can do now is focus on the future and making this wrong right. This is why in the spring of 2021, I paid the SBA loan in full and now all I can do moving forward is continue to tell the truth, apologize to all of those I have hurt and let down, and then show the world that with God all things are possible.”

Even though Harding paid back the loans, David Byron, attorney for the government, was hesitant to rule forfeiture out altogether without a further investigation.

Which means a lot still hangs in the balance for Harding.

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.

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