Miss. mayor indicted on Katrina fraud charges

Published 11:30 pm Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The mayor of a Mississippi city devastated by Hurricane Katrina pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges he lied to get disaster assistance to repair his damaged beachfront home.

Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr is the highest-ranking public official so far to be charged with fraud related to the storm that slammed the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.

He and his wife, Laura, pleaded not guilty in federal court to charges in a 16-count indictment that was issued Jan. 22 but not made public until Wednesday.

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Brent Warr declined comment when contacted Wednesday on his cell phone. He said in a statement the charges have nothing to do with his role as mayor and he will continue to run the coastal city of about 73,000 people 80 miles east of New Orleans.

The mayor and his wife are accused of seeking a homeowners assistance grant for a storm-damaged beachfront home they owned but did not live in. The government is seeking forfeiture of $222,798. Warr, 45, and his wife, 43, also are accused of making false claims to their insurance company.

“This inquiry has been going on for more than a year now, and we hope and pray for a much faster resolution,” Warr said in his statement. “We have entered a plea of not guilty. Out of respect for the justice system and the government, I will not speak further about the claim made against us.”

U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton declined comment.

Warr’s attorney, Joe Sam Owen, said the charges all center on whether the stately white house with tall columns was the couple’s primary residence when the Katrina hit.

Brent Warr bought the house in 2004 and was almost finished with renovations and close to moving in when the storm blew ashore, Owen said. He was already staying there some nights.

“He was just around the corner from the entire family moving in,” Owen said.

Mississippi Auditor Stacey Pickering, whose office was involved in the investigation, said the Warrs face up to 210 years in prison and $4 million in fines if convicted on all counts.

The charges include conspiracy to defraud the federal government, making false statements to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance fraud. A trial is set for April 6.

Pickering said his office — part of the Katrina Fraud Task Force along with other state and federal agencies — had filed Katrina-related charges against some two dozen people in the past year and had 100 other cases under investigation. He did not provide details about the other investigations.

Warr, a first-term Republican mayor and wealthy businessman, was sworn in just weeks before the storm ravaged the area and had been praised for his leadership. He was mentioned in 2007 as a possible candidate for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Trent Lott, but said at the time he had too much work to do helping Gulfport recover from Katrina.

Mississippi Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Biloxi, said he prays Warr will be cleared of the charges.

“He wouldn’t do anything intentionally to hurt the Gulf Coast,” said Palazzo, who has known the Warr family for decades.

Jackie Smith, a Gulfport City Council member, said word of Warr’s indictment was shocking.

“We’ve got to continue right on and that is what we’ll do,” Smith said. “And I’m sure the mayor will keep on and moving our city forward … Certainly our prayers are with the mayor and his family.”

Gulfport is home to the State Port of Gulfport, which was heavily damaged by the killer storm. The area is best known for its manmade beaches and glitzy casinos.