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Cottrell investigation underway

Niagara Falls Repoerter

May 22, 2012

By Frank Parlato Jr.

Spurred by a story published last week in the Niagara Falls Reporter, an investigation is now underway at city hall and possibly in Albany concerning a potential conflict of interest for Kevin Cottrell, the man in charge of the city’s plan to develop an Underground Railroad exhibit.

Mayor Paul Dyster confirmed to the Reporter that there is an investigation “underway” concerning Mr. Cottrell but declined to state specific details saying it was a “personnel” matter.

While no fan of the Reporter, Mayor Dyster said concerning the Reporter’s inquiries into Mr. Cottrell, “I always wonder if you are interested in learning facts or creating them. There have been a lot of facts said about me in the paper that have no relationship to reality. On the other hand, every once in a while, you put something in there that is factual or that leads in a direction that maybe government has to investigate.”

An investigation can originate only through the Mayor office or through a request by the city council.

“Based on the information I read in the Reporter, it appears there is direct conflict of interest, and a violation of law,” said Council Chairman Sam Fruscione.

Mr. Fruscione said he met with Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson last week and asked the city’s top lawyer to expedite inquiries into allegations made about Mr. Cottrell in the Reporter story.

Mr. Fruscione said Mr. Johnson, the Mayor and he will be meeting this week and he plans to provide the law department and the Mayor with printed copies of emails purportedly written by Mr. Cottrell soliciting business for his private enterprise, Motherland Connextions, a company that, as a condition of Mr. Cottrell’s employment with the city, he agreed he would not operate or benefit from.

Mr. Cottrell signed a document on March 4, 2009 that reads he “will not be operating, engaging in any aspect, or profiting from the Motherland Connection (sic) business during the term of this agreement consistent with the provisions of the Public Officers Law.”

Mayor Dyster also signed the agreement.

Last week, the Reporter employed an operative to arrange to book 24 tours directly from Mr. Cottrell for Motherlands Connextions while he was apparently on city time.

Since Mr. Cottrell is paid jointly by the city and the New York Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation, the matter also falls under the watch of state officials.

New York State Senator George Maziarz (R-Newfane) said he is personally taking the matter of Mr. Cottrell’s potential conflict directly to Mr. 
Cottrell’s supervisor, Commissioner of Parks, Rose Harvey.

“I am going to meet with her and bring her a copy of the news story, the emails and other details,” said Sen. Maziarz “and ask her to investigate. I will be reporting back on this matter to my constituents.”

While Mayor Dyster declined to address what was being investigated, sources at city hall said last week that the Mayor ordered an audit of all of Mr. Cottrell’s time sheet records. The handwritten time sheets for all city employees are inputted into a computer software system at the offices of the Human Resources Department, as a back up, a method of checking and preventing changes to time sheet cards at a later date.

Part of what will be checked apparently is whether Mr. Cottrell has taken appropriate sick days or vacation time when he might have been absent from work. Mr. Cottrell, who works in an office on the first floor of city hall, reportedly does not or is not required to appear on a daily basis.

According to City Controller, Maria Brown, Mr. Cottrell, like any city employee, can collect, depending on length of his employment up to 60 percent of his unused sick time in cash after three years and 100 percent of his vacation time, up to 6 weeks.

Niagara Falls Corporation Counsel, Craig Johnson said the agreement Mr. Cottrell signed with the Mayor in 2009 is in force and that, if an investigation determines Mr. Cottrell was operating his private business while conducting work for the public, it would be “precisely a conflict of interest.”

Mr. Johnson said the Niagara Falls Code of Ethics, Section 107.02: F addresses this: (A city employee) “shall not invest or hold any investments directly or indirectly in any financial, business, commercial or other private transaction which creates a conflict with his or her official duties.”

The New York State’s Public Officers Law, referred to in the 2009 agreement signed by Mr. Cottrell and Mayor Dyster also addresses the conflict under section 74 parts 2 and 3.

In 2008, city and state officials reached an agreement to transfer Mr. Cottrell from his job with the New York State Parks – where he was employed as a grant writer - to his current position in the city.

The arrangement allowed Mr. Cottrell to take a leave of absence from the state while he worked for the city to create an Underground Railroad exhibit in the old Customs House near the Whirlpool Bridge.

According to city records, Mr. Cottrell is paid $74,800 with benefits package totaling $120,972. State Parks contributes $75,000 from their budget and the city pays $45,972.

In addition to his salary, Mr. Cottrell heads the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission. According to FOIL request obtained documents, the commission received a check from the city on July 1, 2010 in the amount of $350,000 from Seneca Casino funds to aid in the promotion of tourism for the Underground Railroad exhibit and planned attractions.

As of press time, there has been no  financial reports showing how Mr. Cottrell’s commission spent the money.

Under requirements set forth in New York State Finance Law 99 H section 4 part b, all entities that receive casino money must file a report and “such report shall include an accounting received by such entity ….and the expenditure of any such monies” by April 1 of each year.

According to city controller Maria Brown, she has never seen a report filed and it is now two years late.

As of press time, it is unclear if the money was spent, who has the money or, if any is left, where it is.

The Reporter intends to investigate this matter fully in the coming weeks.

Meantime, Mr. Cottrell’s immediate issue of a potential conflict of interest suggests he faces penalties, including fines, discharge from the city, and the state, and, if fraud is uncovered, possible criminal charges and forfeiture of his pension.

His company, Motherland Connextions exclusively sells tours and souvenirs connected with the Underground Railroad history in this region, a history that critics of Mr. Cottrell suggest Mr. Cottrell made up, using his official position with the city to endorse fabricated history that supports his private business.

Unlike calls made by our operative to book tours which were returned promptly by Mr. Cottrell, repeated calls to Mr. Cottrell over the past week were not returned to the Reporter.

For Council Chairman Fruscione this issue is clear: “Everybody has to follow a certain code of ethics and you need to adhere to that,” he said. “Everybody, no matter who you are-- the mayor, the council or employees.”

Stay tuned.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.