Just over a year after being charged with 11 federal crimes, former Buncombe County Commissioner Ellen Frost is preparing to plead guilty to one of them. According to a factual basis document filed on July 30 with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Frost will likely admit to one count of conspiracy to commit federal program fraud, for which the maximum prison term is five years.
As outlined in the factual basis, Frost acknowledges that she conspired with former County Manager Wanda Greene to illegally misdirect roughly $575,000 of county money between July 2014 and November 2017. The funds, taken from Buncombe’s economic development incentive program without the knowledge or approval of other commissioners, were used to sponsor horse shows and purchase advertising in equestrian publications on behalf of the Asheville Regional Airport. Frost was at the time a horse owner who participated in equestrian activities.
Although the document notes that Lew Bleiweis, executive director of the Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority, “had specific knowledge of the county funding,” it says that neither he nor other members of the airport board knew that the funds had been obtained illegally. The Board of Commissioners did not learn about the payments until August 2016 reporting by the Citizen Times uncovered them; the newspaper did not at that time identify the payments as illegal.
Frost’s actual plea agreement was not available through the federal court system; she is set to appear in court on Monday, Aug. 17. However, the factual basis includes several points suggesting that she will ask for considerable clemency in sentencing.
The document explains that Frost was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in February and was more recently diagnosed with mild neurocognitive disorder, both of which increase her susceptibility to severe symptoms of COVID-19. It also notes that two of Greene’s co-conspirators in other crimes, former Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton and former county contractor Joseph Wiseman Jr., had been released to home confinement due to the coronavirus.