The former head of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority and two family members have entered guilty pleas to stealing government funds.
Stephanie Cowart, 58, admitted stealing $6,000 from the housing authority between October 2013 and January 2015. Cowart faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
In addition, her son Allen and daughter-in-law Fredia pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft of government funds for their roles. They are facing up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Although the dollar amount stolen is low, the FBI said public trust was violated.
“Stephanie Cowart used her power as the Executive Director of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority to enrich herself and members of her family,” said Adam Cohen, Special Agent-in-Charge of the FBI’s Buffalo Division. “She failed to honor the public position she held.”
Cowart was NFHA Executive Director beginning in 1997. She retired in July 2016.
Authorities say it started when Allen and Fredia Cowart, on behalf of People and Possibilities, Inc., sought and obtained a $6,000 grant for a bullying project called “A Better Me.” The grant money was deposited directly into the Housing Authority’s operating account, but work was not done on the project.
In addition, authorities say Allen Cowart defrauded the NFHA and the New York Office of Children and Family Services by falsely claiming he was performing the work of two teachers under the Advantage After School Program.
The salary for the position was $23 an hour. However, his mother directed her son be paid $50 an hour. Authorities say Allen Cowart received $11,583 more than he would have at the original hourly pay rate.
“As the leader of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, Stephanie Cowart was obligated to act as a responsible steward of these funds and to use them to better the lives of residents and the community as a whole,” said U.S. Attorney James Kennedy. “Instead, the defendant misused her position to ensure that the only improvements realized through her administration of these funds were to the bank balances of her family members.”
Sentencing for all is scheduled for April 5, 2018.