TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A seat in the Florida House sits empty following the resignation of Rep. Joe Harding amid accusations of lying to get a pandemic Payment Protection Program loan for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To fill the seat, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a special election would be held, with the primary coming in March, with the full election in May for Florida’s House District 24.

Harding, who faces a federal indictment for applying to get “more than $150,000” from the U.S. Small Business Administration, represented Marion County in the Florida House of Representatives.

According to court documents provided by the U.S. Dept. of Justice, Harding applied for Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), claiming that two companies, The Vak Shack and Harding Farms, had $420,000 in revenue in 2019 and gross revenue of $392,000, respectively.

After the indictment was announced, newly minted Florida House Speaker Paul Renner temporarily took Harding off of his committee assignments to let him have “time to focus on this matter” on Dec. 7. He’d initially been assigned to multiple committees as:

  • Vice Chair of Pre K-12 Appropriations Subcommittee
  • Vice Chair of Health and Human Services Committee

Harding resigned from office the next day.

To elect a representative for Harding’s seat, DeSantis announced a primary election would be held on March 7, 2023 and a full election for the district will be held May 16, 2023.

The former representative will have a trial in a Gainesville courthouse on Jan. 11, 2023 for the charges of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements. The wire fraud charge maximum imprisonment is 20 years.

Also in January, a blimp company executive in Florida, Patrick Walsh, will be sentenced after pleading guilty to wire fraud, also from charges related to pandemic aid fraud. Walsh, of Williston, was accused of fraudulently obtaining millions in pandemic assistance, in August 2022.

According to multiple outlets, Walsh is Harding’s brother-in-law. In court documents, prosecutors said Walsh also applied for loans in his wife’s name, without her knowledge, as reported by the Gainesville Sun and WUFT. Walsh’s wife is Hannah Walsh, née Harding.

In September, Walsh entered a guilty plea, for “fraudulently attempt[ing] to obtain PPP loans and EIDLs in the amount of $14,772,399.” While Walsh did not receive the nearly $15 million, he did receive $7.8 million from the fraudulent PPP and EIDL loan applications, according to court records.