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(Source: Niagara Gazette) 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."....