ASHEVILLE, NC (WSPA) – A former Buncombe County commissioner pleaded guilty in federal court on Monday to a conspiracy charge.
According to a news release, Ellen Madans Frost, 65, of Black Mountain, N.C., pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit federal program fraud following her involvement in a scheme to allegedly use Buncombe County funds to sponsor equestrian activities in North Carolina and in Florida.
Frost was elected as a commissioner in Buncombe County in November 2012 and served until December 2018.
“Beginning in early 2014 through November 2017, Frost conspired with former County Manager, Wanda Skillington Greene, to execute a scheme to defraud the County by misapplying funds allocated to the County’s Economic Development Program to support various equestrian enterprises in North Carolina and Florida, specifically, the Tryon International Equestrian Center (the Tryon Center) located in Polk County, and its affiliate, the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center located in Wellington, Florida,” according to the release.
Court documents revealed that in about 2014 Frost started to speak with Greene about wanting to support the Tryon Center, as well as other related equestrian activities on behalf of the county.
According to the release, Frost and Greene reportedly developed a scheme to enter into a sponsorship and advertising contracts with the Tryon Center, the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and other affiliated equestrian enterprises.
Greene then allegedly proposed using funds from Buncombe County’s Economic Development Incentive Fund to pay for the expenses.
According to the release, the equestrian enterprises were “unaware of the criminal nature of the scheme, including the lack of authorization for Frost and Greene to enter into these negotiations and agreements without the knowledge and approval of the Board of Commissioners, as required by State law.”
“Greene and Frost took steps to cover the fraudulent scheme and to hide the County’s
involvement in these unauthorized sponsorship and advertising contracts, by using the funds to promote the Asheville Regional Airport (the Airport), even though the Airport is an independent entity not governed or funded by the County. In an effort to conceal the fact that the County was the funding source, Greene and Frost ensured that the contracting parties understood that all sponsored events, signage, and advertisements would bear the name and logo of the Asheville Regional Airport, and that no signage or advertisements would be in the name of Buncombe County, even though the County was the paying sponsor.”
“According to court documents the County’s sponsorship contracts guaranteed access to
amenities at the two equestrian venues exclusive to high-level sponsors. Specifically, the Tryon Center contract included access to a “Members Only” VIP table in an area known as the Legends Club. Entrance to the Legends Club and use of the VIP table was limited to persons whose names were on the admission list. Court records show that Frost ordinarily served as the contact person and approved the use of the County-funded table at the Legends Club. Furthermore, during the 2015 and 2016 seasons at the Tryon Center, Frost repeatedly used the VIP table, and invited her friends and other guests to attend the events.”
According to the release, county employees discovered the county’s payments to the equestrian enterprises after Greene’s retirement in June 2017.
In August 2017, the Board of Commissioners reportedly learned of the number and accounts of the payments when the new county manager informed the board of the payments the employees found.
After a plea hearing, Frost was released on bond.
A sentencing date for Frost has not yet been set and the conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.