It looks like a conflict of interest.
Tour company owner Kevin Cottrell agreed that, while serving as the city's $74,800-a-year Underground Railroad promoter, he would not book tours through his private company, Motherland Connextions, a company founded by him that offers tours of sites connected with Underground Railroad history.
A March 4, 2009 agreement signed by Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster and Mr. Cottrell reads that Mr. Cottrell “has represented to the city that 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.”
It now appears Mr. Cottrell is in violation of that written agreement with the City of Niagara Falls.
An operative for the Niagara Falls Reporter, Stephen Sanborn was able to secure a quote for the Underground Railroad tour from none other than Mr. Cottrell's company, Motherland Connextion, with Mr. Cottrell confirming the deal via several emails.
Mr. Sanborn called the phone number listed on www.motherlandconnextions.com on Wednesday, May 9, at 10:30 AM to inquire about booking tours. The phone was answered by a man who identified himself as Kevin Cottrell.
Mr. Cottrell, in describing the Underground Railroad tour that Motherland Connextions provides, told Mr. Sanborn, “We combine the history of the Falls. We look at it from a historical point of view, for instance, why slave owners brought their body slaves with them. We talk about it from that perspective… It’s a great story of diversity and camaraderie between the races. And it’s a real story because you have tangible sites. It’s a local story. It’s a national story. It’s a political movement.”
Do you take credit cards? asked Mr. Sanborn.
“Yes I do,” said Mr. Cottrell. “It’s a four-hour tour of the Underground Railroad. It runs between Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Lewiston . … You go from the bus or your van, get out, go into the site, learn about the history of the site, go back to the bus, move around for the next four hours and we do incorporate the (scenic beauty of the) Falls.”
Do you personally conduct the tour?
“Yes Sir. I am an educator. I teach it. We do it at 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM. That would be the operative times.”
An email from: firstname.lastname@example.org sent Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 8:40 AM and in the possession of the Niagara Falls Reporter confirmed the conversation. It reads:
“Dear Mr. Sanborn:
“On behalf of Motherland Connextions, We are pleased to quote you on the following Underground Railroad Tour for 2012.
“2-day Underground Railroad Tour Package American Pathways 2000 Designated Underground Railroad Tour Step-on Guide in period dress 4-hr. Underground Railroad Tour (U.S.A.) 4-hr. Underground Railroad Tour (Canada)
“Price per person: $70.00 (based on 24 persons pd.)
“After your approval and confirmation (MAIL/FAX) of the above quote we will mail you a contract outlining details and cut-off dates. Should you have any additional questions please don’t hesitate to call us.
“We have a tour for every budget!
“Motherland Connextions Inc.”
The Reporter contacted Niagara Falls Corporation Counsel, Craig Johnson who said he believed the agreement Mr. Cottrell signed with the Mayor in 2009 was in full force and effect.
Mr. Johnson said Mayor Dyster required Mr. Cottrell to give up his interest in Motherlands Connextions because, “it would be precisely a conflict of interest. A section in the Public Officers Law prohibits such activity.”
What law prohibits Mr. Cottrell from running a for-profit business that dovetails with the public work he is doing?
There are several. Among them is the City of Niagara Falls Code of Ethics.
Section 107.02: F reads (an employee of the city) “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.”
107.02: G reads: “He or she shall not engage in, solicit, negotiate for, or promise to accept private employment or render services for private interest when such employment or service creates a conflict with or impairs the proper discharge of 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, reads under section 74 part 2 and 3: “No officer or employee… should have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, or engage in any business or transaction or professional activity or incur any obligation of any nature, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest.” Or “should accept other employment which will impair his independence of judgment in the exercise of his official duties.”
The expensive Underground Railroad project, somewhat dubious in historical integrity on the Niagara Falls end, nonetheless is being heavily promoted as a tourist destination by Mr. Cottrell on behalf of the city.
Meantime, Mr. Cottrell appears to be clearly promoting his own private business that in turn profits from his efforts to promote the Underground Railroad for the city.
The Reporter contacted Mr. Cottrell and asked him if he was still operating Motherland Connextions.
Mr. Cottrell said, “I really don’t want to talk you. I don’t really like you or have any respect for you or what you are trying to do.”
Could you answer a yes or no question, are you still operating Motherland Connextions?
“I am not going to answer anything you ask me, because you are going to twist it anyway so write what you are going to write, because you are going to do it anyway.”
He hung up.
Mr. Cottrell has actually done little to hide his commercial efforts that parallel the efforts in the public sector. The Motherland Connextion’s website advertises that “Mr. Cottrell is Station Master (owner operator) of Motherland Connextions, a company specializing in Heritage Tourism. Currently Motherland Connextions conducts tours with African-American Heritage as a theme throughout the country and now the world,” according to the website.
Mr. Cottrell is described on the website as “a local Historian, Preservationist, Educator and Entrepreneur.” It does not mention his employment with the city.
In 2008, at the request of Mayor Dyster, city and state officials reached an agreement to transfer Mr. Cottrell from his job with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation – where as a grant writer he was making $47,000 per year - to his current position in the city as part of what is called the North Star Initiative.
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.
The proposed 1,200 square foot exhibit is planned to feature interpretive elements to describe the story of slaves who escaped from the South in the mid-1850s and made their way to freedom in Canada. Part of the exhibit will focus on Harriet Tubman, who may have led a number of the slaves to freedom.
According to city records, Mr. Cottrell is paid $74,800, an amount comparable to the pay of the Mayor who is paid $78,000.
According to records made available through FOIL requests, Mr. Cottrell’s annual medical insurance cost is $18,163. Dental insurance: $1,260. Cost for his pension: $13,917. Life insurance: $378. In addition, FICA costs are: $5,722 and Workmen Compensation costs are $6,732 for a total of $120,972.
The state contributes $75,000 of this and the city pays the difference of $45,972.
State Parks officials initially offered to give the city the entire cost of Mr. Cottrell's salary and benefits at his former rate of pay. Mayor Dyster decided to raise Mr. Cottrell's salary from $47,500 to $74,800 with the city paying the difference.
In addition to the apparent conflict of interest between Mr. Cottrell’s private business and his public duties, there has been a longstanding conflict as to whether Mr. Cottrell has “concocted” much of the history surrounding the Underground Railroad in this area.
Mr. Cottrell utilized his public office and public funds to attempt to persuade the public that Harriet Tubman had significant ties to Niagara Falls, claiming in fact that Tubman guided 300 slaves to freedom over the former Suspension Bridge, at the site where the Whirlpool Bridge is presently in the city.
Most historians dismiss claims that Tubman led 300 escaped slaves to freedom anywhere, let alone through Niagara Falls. The highest total number of slaves Tubman is believed to have aided in escaping, attributed by modern historians or biographers is 70. Some think the number is closer to 19. It is likely that none of them crossed at Niagara Falls .
In fact, there has been much debate by historians and biographers as to whether Tubman was ever in either Lewiston or Niagara Falls. If she did, the majority opinion seems to hold that she crossed once on a train for 15 minutes.
Tubman herself may have been given to exaggeration of her exploits and there is only one brief mention of her passing on a train through an area near or in present-day Niagara Falls in a book published in 1869 that is full of historical errors and exaggerations.
Mayor Dyster had planned on making Mr. Cottrell's version of Tubman’s exploits the centerpiece of the Underground Railroad museum. Critics have argued that to spend millions of public dollars to create an Underground Railroad exhibit based on flimsy, if not fictitious history might call the credibility of the entire exhibit into question.
On Mr. Cottrell’s website, he offers a Harriet Tubman Doll for sale for $75.00.