ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Former Buncombe County Commissioner Ellen Madans Frost, 65, of Black Mountain, N.C., appeared in federal court today and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit federal program fraud, for her involvement in a scheme to use Buncombe County funds to sponsor equestrian activities in North Carolina and Florida, announced Andrew Murray, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.
John A. Strong, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Charlotte Division; Director Robert Schurmeier of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI); and Matthew D. Line, Special Agent in Charge of the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation Division, Charlotte Field Office (IRS-CI), join U.S. Attorney Murray in making today’s announcement.
According to filed court documents and today’s plea hearing, Frost was elected as Commissioner for Buncombe County (the County) in November 2012, and continued to serve 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 court documents, in or about 2014, Frost began to speak with Greene about Frost’s desire to support the Tryon Center and related equestrian activities on behalf of the County. As a result, Frost and Greene developed a scheme to enter into sponsorship and advertising contracts with the Tryon Center, the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, and affiliated equestrian enterprises. To pay for the associated expenses, Wanda Greene proposed using monies from the County’s Economic Development Incentive Fund. 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.
Following Greene’s retirement in June 2017, County employees discovered the County’s payments to the equestrian enterprises. In August 2017, the Board of Commissioners learned of the number and amounts of these payments, when the new County Manager informed the Board of the payments county employees had discovered.
Following her plea hearing, Frost was released on bond. The federal program fraud conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. A sentencing date for Frost has not been set.
In making today’s announcement U.S. Attorney Murray commended the FBI, IRS-CI and the SBI for their investigation of this case.
Assistant United States Attorneys Richard Edwards and Don Gast of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Asheville are prosecuting the case.