It started with former Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene — now, the continuing investigation into corruption within county government has pointed the finger at an elected official for the first time. On July 16, a grand jury charged former Commissioner Ellen Frost of 11 federal crimes, including conspiracy to commit federal program fraud, five counts of federal program fraud and five counts of mail fraud.
At the heart of the case against Frost, who was first elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2012 and served through 2018, are roughly $575,000 in county funds that she and Greene allegedly funneled to support “various equestrian enterprises in North Carolina and Florida.” The Tryon International Equestrian Center in Polk County received over $275,000, while The Chronicle of the Horse magazine and Wellington, Fla.-based Palm Beach International Equestrian Center each received roughly $150,000.
According to the indictment, Frost and Greene took the money from the county’s Economic Development Incentive Fund, any spending of which legally requires a public hearing and vote of the full board. To disguise this source, the two allegedly used the funds to buy sponsorship rights and advertising in the name of the Asheville Regional Airport instead of promoting Buncombe County itself.
Frost, who owned horses and showed them at the Tryon venue during her time on the board, oversaw access to a “Legends Club” VIP table during the center’s 2015 and 2016 seasons, according to federal investigators. The commissioner’s guests — allegedly including airport Executive Director Lew Bleiweis, other members of the airport board and the owners of the Polk County farm where she boarded her horses — received a complimentary “full-spread buffet and a premium selection of liquor, beer and wine” valued at roughly $2,000 per week.
The indictment claims that Frost and Green did not tell any other commissioners about the payments; however, it mentions several other county officials in association with their activities. David Gantt, the former board chair, allegedly attended “an introductory informal tour” of the Tryon facility in mid-July 2014 that Frost arranged with an eye to supporting the center.
“Due to the possibility that I may be a witness in the trial of this matter, I don’t think it appropriate to discuss your questions in the media,” Gantt responded to a July 18 request for comment. “I will be happy to discuss in detail after all federal investigations and trial are completed.”
The indictment also notes that each of the checks for the equestrian payments were signed by a Buncombe employee besides Greene. A payment of $50,000 to the Wellington center was allegedly executed Feb. 19, 2015, by the county manager and former Finance Director Donna Clark, who retired on March 1 of the same year. The remaining checks were allegedly signed by Clark’s replacement, Tim Flora, whose promotion to interim finance director was recommended by Greene and submitted for a commission vote by Frost on Feb. 3, 2015.
Flora, now finance director for the Raleigh suburb of Knightdale, explained that his signature was applied to the checks as part of the county’s electronic financial software process and that he did not personally approve the spending. He said his department had confirmed that the payments were supported by the county budget; the Economic Development Incentive Fund had enough money to cover the expenses, so the county’s pre-audit did not flag any issues.
“Was I aware that those payments were being made? No. Was my name on those checks? Yes,” Flora said.
Flora added that, after the other Buncombe commissioners allegedly learned of one of Frost’s payments through an Aug. 30, 2016, article in the Citizen Times, they did not reach out to him about the suspicious spending. “The commissioners hardly ever spoke to me about anything,” he said. “Am I surprised about the Ellen Frost indictment? No, I am not.”
Chair Brownie Newman is the only current board member to date who has issued a public statement on the indictment. In a document provided to the media before the commission’s July 16 meeting, he wrote that he spoke to Frost on Oct. 5, 2017, about his concerns over the county’s equestrian support.
“It was not plausible to me that, after setting up the meeting [between Greene and Tryon center owner Mark Bellissimo] and spending extensive time at the equestrian center, she would not have awareness of what was happening,” Newman wrote. He did not mention taking any action immediately after the 2016 revelation of the spending. However, he did apprise Frost on Oct. 6, 2017, that he wouldn’t support her 2018 reelection bid. Frost subsequently announced she would not seek another term on the board, citing a desire to spend more time with her family.
Frost’s attorney, Anthony Scheer, is slated to appear on her behalf for her arraignment at the federal courthouse in Charlotte on Wednesday, July 31, at 10 a.m. If Frost is convicted of all charges, she faces up to 155 years in prison.