Was this indictment a politically motivated witch hunt, or just prosecuting a thief?

Let’s start with basics: Joe Harding didn’t come from America’s educated or business elite. He’s a junior college dropout who worked in construction before starting his landscaping business (see his profile here). You could say he’s a dirt-under-fingernails type of guy. Some people would call him a bootstrapper, someone who lifted himself up by hard work.

Harding, a Republican, was elected to Florida’s legislature in 2020 on a platform of boosting agriculture and supporting law enforcement (see writeup here), and was re-elected in 2022 on a platform of hating LGBQT people (see campaign ad below). While in the legislature, he introduced Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill condemned by (among others) the American Bar Association and President Biden.

I guess you could say he’s either a defender of family values (he has a wife and four children) or an ignorant bigot, depending on your perspective, tolerance, and social philosophy. For purposes of this story, let’s just say he’s a controversial political figure, liked by some and despised by others.

So if federal authorities targeted him for prosecution, was that a political witch hunt, political retaliation, or just prosecuting a thief? I suspect you already see where I’m going with this.

President Biden doesn’t tell the Department of Justice who to investigate. To the contrary, unlike his immediate predecessor, he’s made a point of keeping his fingers out of that pie. He even kept on a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney who’s investigating his own son, one presumes to avoid any appearance of interfering in that potential criminal prosecution, as new presidents ordinarily replace all the U.S. attorneys.

So, right out of the gate, the federal indictment of Joseph Harding is entitled to a presumption of being a result of the ordinary grinding of the wheels of justice. You can argue otherwise, of course, but you’ll have the burden of demonstrating this was a politically-motivated witch hunt to force a high-profile politician out of office and throw him in prison as retaliation for the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. (If so, one can hope Gov. DeSantis, who signed the bill, will be next.)

But now let’s look at the cold, hard facts — something Republicans, and especially Trump’s defenders, generally aren’t inclined to do.

Harding was charged with Covid-19 relief fraud. Specifically, lying on Small Business Administration loan applications. Federal prosecutors alleged he “listed dormant business entities on his applications, fabricated the numbers of people he employed and submitted fake bank statements” to obtain $150,000 of forgivable PPP loans, CNN says (read story here).

Of course, lots of people did that, but that doesn’t make it right. And there’s really no evidence he was singled out because of who he is. As CNN puts it, “the Justice Department’s Covid-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force has brought several high-profile fraud cases across the country,” which I interpret to mean they’re not shying away from prosecuting the politicians and other prominent people in that dishonest crowd.

He resigned from the Florida legislature in December 2022, shortly after he was indicted; and accepted a plea deal and pled guilty on Tuesday, March 21, 2023 (see CNN story linked above). That may give a feeling of satisfaction to his political detractors, but it doesn’t look like political persecution to me. The term “witch hunt” implies persecution of innocent people; by that definition, Harding isn’t a witch, because he’s guilty as sin. This was a garden-variety prosecution of a thief.

Well, we all know who else claims to be the victim of a “witch hunt” and the target of “politically motivated” criminal investigations. What I’m suggesting here is being indicted and prosecuted ain’t persecution if you committed crimes. That makes you a criminal, not a victim. That’s how it’s always worked until now, that’s how it should work, and hopefully that’s how it still works.

We like to think of America as an exceptional country, and compared to the rest of the world, we can make a pretty good argument that we are. One of the things that sets us apart is our strongly-held ideals of equality; we don’t have royalty, or privileged characters either. At least, we like to think so, and boast that in our country nobody is above the law.

We’ll see.

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