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.
Brent Warr 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.
Allegations of insurance fraud
The two 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 and Warr's attorney did not immediately respond to a call from The Associated Press.
Warr, a first-term Republican mayor and wealthy businessman, had been praised for his leadership after the storm. 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.
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.