“‘Embezzling status’ is a term used by the government [prosecution]. It seems apt.”
That’s how Robert Conrad, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, summarized the actions of Ellen Frost at an April 28 hearing. He proceeded to sentence the former Buncombe County commissioner, who had pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit federal program fraud, to six months in federal prison and a year of supervised release.
In July 2019, Frost was charged with 11 federal crimes related to her misappropriation of roughly $575,000 in county funds in 2015 and 2016. Without obtaining approval from her colleagues on the Board of Commissioners, Frost partnered with former County Manager Wanda Greene to spend Buncombe taxpayer money on sponsorships of three equestrian enterprises in the name of the Asheville Regional Airport.
Frost’s attorney, Anthony Scheer, claimed that the county had profited from increased tourism due to that advertising at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, Florida’s Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and The Chronicle of the Horse magazine. He said the former commissioner had gained little personal benefit from her illegal activity, thereby demonstrating a “lack of greed” worthy of a lighter sentence.
But Conrad pointed out that, as a perk of one of those sponsorships, Frost had received use of a VIP table in a members-only club at the Tryon International Equestrian Center; as outlined in her indictment, she invited airport board members and other guests to enjoy a complimentary “full-spread buffet and a premium selection of liquor, beer and wine” worth roughly $2,000 per week. The judge suggested that she had acted out of pride, not greed, and that she sought to be treated as a “big dog in the equestrian world.”
The sentence reflected a compromise between federal guidelines, which advised incarceration for 24-30 months, and the joint request of the defense and prosecution that Frost not receive any active prison time. Conrad said that her betrayal of public trust in local government required an active sentence, as he had imposed on Greene and other corrupt Buncombe officials in August 2019.
“I have no excuses. I violated that trust,” Frost said to the courtroom when asked to speak on her own behalf. She offered her “humble apologies” to Buncombe residents and said she would return to a “life of service” on her release from prison.
However, Conrad opted for what he termed a “substantial variance” from the sentencing guidelines in light of Frost’s minimal profit from the fraud and her chronic health issues. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in February 2020, and Scheer had argued that active prison time would prevent her from engaging in the physical therapy needed to slow the condition’s progress.
The judge also did not ask Frost to pay any restitution to Buncombe County. On April 20, the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a $175,000 settlement with the former official in a separate civil suit; the agreement still allows the county to seek the remaining $400,000 in damages from Greene.