Former Niagara Falls housing director admits thefts

Former Niagara Falls housing director admits thefts

Stephanie W. Cowart, former executive director of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, admitted Wednesday to working with her son and daughter-in-law to steal $17,580 from the authority and the state.

Cowart, who appeared before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara, pleaded guilty to theft of federal funds and acknowledged signing off on a teaching job and a training program that illegally benefited the couple.

Allen and Fredia Cowart are expected to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges in connection with the thefts.

“She made a mistake,” defense lawyer Michael A. Battle said of Stephanie Cowart. “It wasn’t with any malace. She was just being a mom.”

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A Falls native, Cowart, 58, is a 34-year veteran of the housing authority and served as executive director for nine years. She was put on paid administrative leave in July of last year, though the authority would not disclose the reason, and announced her retirement — effective March 21 — in November of last year.

Cowart’s felony conviction stems from an FBI investigation that linked her to a $6,000 training program funded by the authority and run by her son and daughter-in-law.

Known as “A Better Me,” the program was intended to teach teens the importance of etiquette.

‘”No such training was ever provided,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Maura K. O’Donnell told Arcara.

O’Donnell said Cowart’s son also benefited from a teaching assignment at one of the authority’s after-school programs that paid him $50 an hour, double what most such teachers made at the time. The program was funded by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.

“She falsely represented that her son was doing the work of two teachers,” O’Donnell said.

Allen Cowart’s lawyer said his client regrets his involvement in the thefts and is prepared to make amends.

“He executed poor judgement,” said defense attorney Barry N. Covert, “and will pay complete restitution,”

When Stephanie Cowart is sentenced in April, she will face a recommended sentence of six to 12 months in prison. She also will have to repay the money she stole.

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