BUFFALO -- In a courtroom packed with dozens of Niagara Falls community leaders and others, Stephanie Cowart told a federal judge she never expected that she would face the prospect of prison.
"I lived my life, never expecting to appear in court under these circumstances," she said. "My life's mission, my life's passion has been to build strong communities. My priorities are God, family and community."
But Cowart was facing a possible maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for her guilty plea to stealing federal funds in a scheme involving her son and daughter-in-law. A scheme that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Arcara said left him deeply troubled.
"For most of my career, I have been a public servant," Arcara told Cowart. "(That means) you're entitled to work hard and get a paycheck. That's all you're entitled to. I don't understand how this lady could have had this moment of greed, maybe? I can't get over this violation of public trust."
Arcara told Cowart that when he first reviewed her case, he concluded she should spend time behind bars. But then an outpouring of community support began to persuade him otherwise. In particular, the judge pointed to 30 letters, written by people as diverse as former Congressman John LaFalce, former Falls Police Superintendent John Chella, former Niagara University President Father Joseph Levesque, Niagara County Elections Commissioner Lora Allen and local pastors, the Rev. Harvey Kelly and the Rev. Craig Pridgen, that gave him pause.
"There were very good letters," Arcara said. "I know some of the people who wrote these letters and I know they were sincere in what they said. "
Then, with a long audible sigh, Arcara sentenced Cowart, 59, to two years of probation and a $2,000 fine.
He called the sentence, which he admitted was less then the minimum under federal sentencing guidelines, "fair, just and reasonable." Government lawyers had asked Arcara to impose a "guideline sentence."
"I was intending to put her in prison, strictly from the violation of public trust," Arcara said. "Then I considered home incarceration, but I just didn't feel it would serve a purpose."
The sentence was exactly what Cowart and her lawyer requested.
"I made a terrible decision and I am truly sorry," Cowart told the judge. "Please accept my heartfelt regrets."
The sentencing brought to an end a more-than-two-year-long investigation into Cowart, who served as the Niagara Falls Housing Authority’s executive director from 1997 until her retirement from the $140,000-a-year post in March 2017.
The investigation was first revealed in July 2016, when the Niagara Gazette reported that the housing authority had received subpoenas from the Buffalo Field Office of the FBI seeking information about a pair of programs administered by the agency. At that time, Cowart was placed on paid administrative leave by the housing authority’s board of commissioners.
The Gazette also reported in December 2016 that Allen and Fredia Cowart had cut checks, totaling $6,000, to reimburse the authority for funds paid to them by Stephanie Cowart.
That cash had come to the authority in the form of a grant from the private, not-for-profit, Niagara Area Foundation. According a synopsis of the grant, filed in the authority’s records, Allen and Fredia were designated to serve as instructors for the program and would use “role-playing exercises, conflict resolution techniques and situational exercises” to teach young people how to make productive decisions in challenging environments.
Federal prosecutors claimed in a criminal complaint that Allen and Fredia Cowart pocketed the cash and never conducted the program, which was called “A Better Me."
Cowart told Arcara she had always tried to be "an advocate for the needy and disadvantaged."
The special agent-in-charge of the Buffalo Division of the FBI said she failed in her efforts.
“When Stephanie Cowart used her power as the executive director of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority to steal money entrusted to her, she failed the people she was hired to serve," said Acting Special Agent-in-Charge Kevin P. Lyons.
“In stealing public funds, the defendant put her own interests ahead not only of taxpayers but of the very people she was supposed to be helping,” U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York J.P. Kennedy said.
As part of her plea agreement, Cowart was required to pay $17,583 in restitution. That money has already been repaid.
Arcara told Cowart she could pay her fine over the term of her probation, but then suggested a better course.
"If I was you," the judge said, "I'd pay that fine as soon as you can and get on with your life."
Outside the courtroom, both Cowart and her defense attorney, former U.S. Attorney Michael Battle, each declined to comment on the sentence.
Asked by a reporter, "Why did you do it?" Cowart said nothing and walked away.
JUDGE: Sentence below federal guidelines was 'fair, just and reasonable' for ex-Falls housing chief.