Gulfport Mayor Fraud Trial Starts July 8

July 6, 2009

Gulfport, Mississippi Mayor Brent Warr, the highest-ranking public official charged with Hurricane Katrina fraud, won’t be allowed to send questionnaires to potential jurors in his federal trial.

Warr and his wife, Laura, have pleaded not guilty to charges in a 16-count federal indictment accusing them of seeking a homeowners assistance grant for a house they owned but did not live in. They’re also accused of making false claims to their insurance company.

Brent Warr’s lawyer 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.

Warr didn’t seek re-election this year. George Schloegel takes over Monday as mayor.

Questionnaires are sometimes used to gauge potential jurors’ views, but judges don’t have to allow them. It’s not clear what Brent Warr’s attorney, Joe Sam Owen, wanted to ask people in the jury pool. Owen didn’t immediately return a phone call Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Walter J. Gex III ruled Wednesday that the questionnaire is unnecessary. Attorneys will be able to question potential jurors in person.

Federal prosecutors had argued against using questionnaires, saying a copy of it could be leaked to the media because Warr’s case is so high-profile.

“A juror questionnaire is just one more opportunity for the press to comment and try the issues outside of the courtroom, exactly the thing we hope to avoid,” the government said in a motion June 1.

Prosecutors said questionnaires have not been allowed in several other Katrina cases.

The government claims 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 face up to 210 years in prison and $4 million in fines if convicted on all counts, though maximum sentences are rarely imposed in such cases.

The charges include conspiracy to defraud the federal government, making false statements to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance fraud. The trial is scheduled to begin July 8.

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