Ex-mayor in Miss. pleads guilty in Katrina case

Published 2:09 am Sunday, September 27, 2009

A former Gulfport mayor was sentenced to probation Friday in a plea deal on charges that he defrauded a program to help Hurricane Katrina victims rebuild their homes, allowing him and his wife to walk out of court with no prison time.

Brent Warr pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Gulfport to one felony count for receiving disaster money that the Federal Emergency Management Agency said he wasn’t entitled to, Warr’s attorney, Joe Sam Owen, told The Associated Press. The Warrs were accused of wrongly seeking a homeowners assistance grant for a house they owned but did not live in. Prosecutors originally charged that the couple defrauded the government and insurance companies out of $222,798.

Under the plea agreement, prosecutors dropped 19 other charges against Brent Warr and all 20 against his wife, Laura. Brent Warr was sentenced to three years probation and was ordered to pay $9,558 in restitution.

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“From the beginning, I’ve said that protecting my family was my number one priority … So, this evening, my children can go to bed and say their prayers knowing that their mother and father will be tucking them in tonight and every night for the rest of their childhood,” Brent Warr said in a statement.

“Since Katrina, we haven’t had a chance to even take a breath. Now, we can breathe a little easier. And I can begin to rebuild the damage done to my family’s good name,” Warr said in the statement.

U.S. Attorney Stan Harris said Friday in a statement that Brent Warr admitted that it was not true when he and his wife told FEMA that the entire family was living in the home at the time of the storm.

“It is of particular concern when a public official — in this case, then a sitting mayor — engages in theft through deceit, of government funds for personal benefit. This case is an example that no one is above the law,” Harris said.

Warr, who was the highest ranking public official accused of defrauding the government after the 2005 storm, didn’t seek re-election this year after his first term.

Owen said he’s pleased the Warrs “walked out of the courtroom and can put it behind them and move on with their two young children.”

Owen has said the charges arose from a misunderstanding about the Warrs’ living arrangements and a beachfront home they were renovating when the storm hit Aug. 29, 2005.

The government had claimed Brent Warr lied when he told FEMA that a home on Beach Drive was his family’s primary residence, and that it was “fully complete, furnished, and occupied at the time of Hurricane Katrina.”

Prosecutors say the family wasn’t living in the home. Owen has said Warr bought the house in 2004 and was almost finished with renovations when the storm blew ashore. Brent Warr was already staying there some nights, Owen said.

The Warrs faced up to 210 years in prison and $4 million in fines had they been convicted on all counts, though maximum sentences are rarely imposed in such cases.

The charges included conspiracy to defraud the federal government, making false statements to the FEMA and insurance fraud.