NIAGARA FALLS - By the time Stephanie W. Cowart leaves the payroll at the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, the suspended executive director will be paid more than $95,000 for not working.
The authority board placed Cowart on paid administrative leave July 21 after word of an FBI investigation of the agency surfaced.
On Nov. 22, the board approved an agreement with Cowart that keeps her on leave until March 21, when she will step down officially. But Cowart will not return to work and will not be paid for any unused sick or vacation days she may have incurred.
However, by then the authority will have paid Cowart $95,613 during her leave, according to Patricia Barone, the deputy director who has been acting director since July. That's a gross payment of $49,172 from July to November and $46,441 from December through March, Barone told The Buffalo News in an email.
The board has never explained exactly why it placed Cowart, its executive director since 1997, on leave in the first place.
"That'll come out down the road," the board chairman, the Rev. Kevin Dobbs, said after the Nov. 22 meeting.
Jason J. Cafarella, the board's attorney, said Cowart's contract noted she could only be fired for cause, which was defined as "malfeasance" or being convicted of a felony.
Cafarella said the board hired outside attorneys to investigate allegations against Cowart, but that probe hasn't been completed. Because she has not been formally charged with anything, the board could not terminate her, Cafarella said. That's why she could only be placed on paid leave and why her departure had to be negotiated, Cafarella said.
Cowart was required by terms of her contract, which would have expired Nov. 30, 2018, to give 60 days' notice of her departure.
Cowart has not responded to requests for comment since she was suspended.
This isn't the first time federal authorities have taken an interest in the inner workings of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority.
The Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development audited the Niagara Falls Housing Authority in 2014 and found that the local agency took nearly $1.5 million that it didn't need from a HUD line of credit for a major construction project.
The Housing Authority was approved in 2006 for a $20 million federal grant to replace the Center Court housing project in the Falls. Only two of three planned phases were constructed, giving Center Court 215 new housing units instead of the proposed 282. The third phase, never built, was to include homes to be owned by the people living in them.
The 2014 audit said Niagara Falls Housing Authority officials misinterpreted the regulations surrounding the project and took out $1,084,187 from the HUD line of credit that was not needed to reimburse it for expenses connected with the first phase of construction of the so-called HOPE VI project, and also took $403,324 more than needed for the second phase.
Cowart asserted at the time that her agency's actions complied with HUD regulations and actually had been approved in advance by HUD.
The audit called for the Housing Authority to return the $1.5 million, plus $26,785 in accrued interest on those withdrawals, to the U.S. Treasury. However, that payment has still not been made; Barone said, "That's still controversial and we may not need to pay it back."
It wouldn't have come close to covering HUD's expenses for the project, which grew from the original $20 million to $30 million.
The project was delayed by the discovery of toxic material underground at the construction site.
Cafarella said the HUD audit is unrelated to the investigation of Cowart.