Mayor Warr pleads not guilty to Katrina fraud allegations

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - The rumors that have swirled around Brent Warr for almost a year are true. The federal government has built a case that accuses Gulfport's mayor -- and his wife -- of Katrina fraud.

Brent and Laura Warr both pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a 16 count indictment.  That indictment alleges the couple made fraudulent claims when they applied for, and received homeowner's assistance grants. Words like devised, defraud, scheme, and misrepresent are sprinkled throughout the indictment. The government uses those words to explain how the Warrs allegedly received disaster assistance benefits to rebuild a home on Gulfport's beachfront that, at the time, they weren't living in.

Mr. and Mrs. Warr walked out of the Dan Russell United States Courthouse surrounded by family members. The Gulfport mayor made a very brief statement about the 16 count Katrina fraud indictment filed against him and his wife.

"Laura and I have entered our plea," he said. "It speaks for itself. We're not going to make public comments about this case. We're going to keep our comments in the courtroom where they belong."

The government's indictment accuses the Warrs of making false claims for money they shouldn't have received after Katrina. Brent Warr's attorney is Joe Sam Owen.

"I'm going to defend it," he said.

In court, the Gulfport mayor was stoic. His wife was emotional, but she kept her composure. Both pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy, one count of false and fraudulent claims, four counts of making false statements about whether they lived at 1814 Beach Boulevard at the time of Katrina, two counts of theft of public money, three counts of wire fraud, and five counts of mail fraud.

"The main thing that's most important right now," the mayor said, "is to take care of and protect my family."

The indictment claims the 45 year old mayor and his 43 year old wife illegally received $159,000 in disaster assistance from FEMA. And it says the couple schemed to defraud the Lexington Insurance Company out of an additional $63,000. That money was to cover hurricane losses reported at the beachfront home. It was money the feds insisted in court papers the Warrs were not entitled to.

"In deference to Laura and Brent, I think my comments would best be served if I make them in the courtroom," Owen said. "I'm just not a big believer of trying my case in the news media."

Both Warrs seemed visibly shaken as they stood in front of the magistrate and pleaded not guilty to the conspiracy, wire fraud and mail fraud allegations levied against them. Four years ago, they became Gulfport's first family. And then, Katrina hit. That storm suddenly has them trapped in a much more personal legal storm that could have dire consequences.

Despite the legal issue, Brent Warr is still mayor of Gulfport.

"Absolutely. Still fully engaged," he said.

However, his political future beyond this spring may be in doubt.

"I won't be making any further comments, thank you," he said, before walking with his wife across 15th Street to his car.

Warr was planning to run for a second term as mayor of the state's second largest city. Some of his friends say he should still run. Others say he should focus on his family. His attorney says Warr is presumed innocent.

"There is nothing in the indictment that in any form or fashion relates to his functions as the mayor of the city of Gulfport," said Owen.

The Warrs were both represented at the arraignment by Joe Sam Owen. However, next week, the family will hire a second attorney specifically to represent Mrs. Warr through these proceedings.