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Falls suspends developer of center for Underground Railroad 5 days

The city has suspended an employee it hired to help develop an Underground Railroad interpretive center in the North End.

Kevin E. Cottrell was suspended Tuesday without pay for five days for operating a private Underground Railroad tour business while employed by the city and the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, a violation of his agreement with the agencies.

"I'm very disappointed that Kevin exercised poor judgment in this case," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "I accept at face value his assertion that this will not happen again. I hope this doesn't tarnish the good work that he's done for many years."

City Council members asked the city to investigate allegations that Cottrell was booking tours for his business, Motherland Connections, while helping develop the heritage site. His contract with the city and state bars him from running the business when working on the heritage plan.

Dyster said Cottrell "readily admitted" booking the tours and acknowledged his "bad judgment" but said the incident was isolated. City leaders have heard of no other allegations of private tour booking, the mayor said.

Dyster said the decision to suspend Cottrell was made after consulting with Mark W. Thomas, regional State Parks director.

As project coordinator for the North Star initiative, Cottrell is employed by the city and state to help develop an interpretive site for the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area.

He was honored by city leaders last month at the unveiling of the restored 1863 U.S. Customs House on Whirlpool Street, which is slated to become the interpretive center connected to a new $44 million Amtrak station.

"Whatever the issues are with the project coordinator, it in no way, to my mind, diminishes the importance of the project he is working on," Dyster said.

The city was alerted to the violations after a weekly newspaper, the Niagara Falls Reporter, wrote that it solicited a man to request the tours from Cottrell, and Cottrell obliged.

Cottrell, who did not respond to multiple requests to comment, earns nearly $121,000, including benefits, in his position, which is funded by the city and state, according to City Controller Maria C. Brown.

Officials at the Reporter, who are often at odds with city officials, defended the way they obtained the information on Cottrell.

"You can't entrap an innocent man," said Publisher Frank Parlato. "If it's true that he was violating the law in his agreement and disserving the people of Niagara Falls, sometimes it requires some outside-the-box thinking to prove it. We don't have to follow any particular playbook."

In another development, Brown confirmed that $350,000 in city money from casino slots revenue was transferred to the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission and that the commission has failed to report the use of that money for the past two years.

Attorney Lawrence K. Rubin, who has held top legal and development posts in Buffalo and Erie County and was retained by the commission, said those reports were not filed because of delayed paperwork from the state and would be mailed to Dyster and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo today.

Rubin said $40,000 of those funds were paid to the city and that about $180,000 were to be awarded to a consultant, though the consultant has not been fully paid. He noted that Cottrell is not a member of the commission. He said the commission recently unveiled its management plan, which is awaiting state approval. It also has a website detailing its activities.

"It's been a very transparent process," Rubin said.

Cottrell's suspension ends next Thursday.

email: cspecht@buffnews.com