Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr and his wife, Laura, quietly cried in the corridor of the U.S. District courthouse mere blocks from City Hall after they were each indicted on 16 charges, including conspiracy, fraud and making false statements to obtain a total of $222,798.10 in federal Katrina relief and insurance funds.
The Warrs pleaded innocent to the charges in U.S. District Court this morning. They flanked their attorney, Joe Sam Owen of Gulfport, as they stood before U.S. Magistrate Judge John M. Roper.
Gulfport’s first couple potentially faces maximum penalties of 210 years each in prison and fines of up to $4 million each. The government also is seeking forfeiture of their Katrina and insurance funds, or assets of equal value.
Each of them was specifically charged with one count of conspiracy, two counts of fraud, four counts of making false statements, three counts of wire fraud and five counts of mail fraud. They were released on unsecured bonds of $25,000 each.
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The indictment outlines relief the Warrs received for their beachfront mansion from Sept. 15, 2005, through March 7, 2007. They are charged with conspiring to falsely claim they lived in the beachfront home when they hadn’t actually moved in before the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane.
The Warrs contend they had moved into the beach home before Katrina struck, but they also had stayed at Brent Warr’s deceased grandmother’s home in the Woodglen subdivision while the property they bought in 2003 was renovated.
Prosecutors allege the Warrs fraudulently received the maximum $150,000 HUD homeowners grant through the Mississippi Development Authority, $9,558 in FEMA funds and $88,440.10 from Lexington Insurance Co.
Warr told the media after his court appearance: “Laura and I have entered our plea. It speaks for itself. We are not going to make public statements.” Rather, he said, they plan to defend themselves in court.
Their trial is tentatively scheduled for April 6. Owen told the judge that the Warrs would have separate attorneys by Monday. There is a potential conflict of interest when a couple is represented by the same attorney. The judge pointed out that a plea might be offered to one defendant with less involvement, which an attorney representing both of them could not negotiate.
Owen said after the hearing that the indictment has no relation to Warr’s job as mayor, which he will continue to perform as municipal election season approaches. Warr has previously indicated he will seek re-election.
However, the Warrs will need permission from their court probation officer to travel outside Mississippi’s Southern District. The Southern District covers the state from Jackson to the Coast.
The judge approved a trip the mayor has scheduled from Feb. 15-17. The city later confirmed that the travel is for official business.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which refused to verify the existence of the indictment sealed since Jan. 22, issued a statement after the hearing. It read much like the statements released after other Katrina fraud indictments. The federal court currently has 57 such criminal cases pending.
Read more about the Warrs and the indictment as details develop at sunherald.com and in Thursday's Sun Herald.