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Former Falls housing chief, while facing federal prison, gets dental benefits

If Stephanie W. Cowart, the former executive director of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, is smiling much lately, she'll do so at the taxpayers' expense.

Cowart, who pleaded guilty last month to stealing money from the agency, was awarded 18 months of authority-paid dental insurance Tuesday, after the authority board voted 5-2 to grant her request.

Board members Alicia Laible-Kenyon and Kristen M. Grandinetti, a former City Council member, voted no. Laible-Kenyon said the authority is tougher on tenants than it is on Cowart.

"If someone is smoking weed, we don't let them live here," Laible-Kenyon said. "This woman was convicted of a felony, and we're still supplying additional benefits."

Acting director Patricia L. Barone said she thought the request pertained to dental work Cowart already received. The 18 months are retroactive to the official date of her retirement, which was March 22.

"Her contract was pretty specific in terms of what it called health benefits. It called health insurance and dental insurance as health benefits. Her termination letter was written specifically citing that section of the contract," board member Frank A. Soda said.

The terms of Cowart's departure letter, approved by the board in November 2016, included lifelong medical benefits at authority expense. Barone said the medical coverage costs between $12,000 and $13,000 a year; the dental coverage will add $90 to $100 a month to that.

Authority counsel Jason J. Cafarella said the dental coverage was included in a provision of Cowart's contract that dealt with benefits she could receive after her departure from the agency.

Cafarella acknowledged that he didn't think so at first, but special counsel Jonathan Fellows convinced him otherwise.

"We decided we would honor the contract," said Bishop Kevin Dobbs, the authority board chairman.

"The issue isn't the money with me," Soda said. "It's just the issue of completing the relationship honorably, whatever the circumstance."

Cowart, 58, of Grand Island, did not return a call seeking comment.

She led the Housing Authority for 19 years. At the time of her departure, it already was known that she was the subject of an FBI investigation.

That probe resulted in guilty pleas by Cowart and her son and daughter-in-law regarding misuse of public funds.

Cowart admitted stealing $6,000 from the authority between October 2013 and January 2015 in connection with an anti-bullying program for which her son, Allen Q. Cowart, 31, and his wife, Fredia, 28, obtained a grant from a local foundation.

Stephanie Cowart deposited the $6,000 grant into the Housing Authority's operating account and paid it out to Allen and Fredia Cowart, but the U.S. Attorney's Office said they never held any presentations in the anti-bullying program.

Also, Stephanie Cowart directed a pay raise for Allen, who was working as a teacher in an after-school program paid for by federal welfare funds during the 2013-14 school year. Regulations called for him to be paid $23 an hour, but his mother ordered the authority to pay him $50 an hour. The extra pay totaled $11,583 during the school year.

Stephanie Cowart pleaded guilty to a felony count of theft of federal funds, and Allen and Fredia Cowart, who live in the Falls, pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. Stephanie Cowart faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and the younger Cowarts risk a year in prison and a $100,000 fine when they are sentenced April 5 in U.S. District Court.

However, federal sentencing guidelines, which Judge Richard J. Arcara does not have to follow, call for Stephanie Cowart to serve no more than a year and Allen and Fredia to serve no more than six months.

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