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ASHEVILLE - Former Buncombe County Commissioner Ellen Frost conspired with corrupt manager Wanda Greene to use more than $575,000 of public funds on personal equestrian activities in North Carolina and elsewhere, according to an 11-count federal indictment against the Black Mountain Democrat.

The charges for Frost come nearly a year and half after a Citizen Times investigation found the 64-year-old was involved in former Greene's questionable use of taxpayer funds for sponsorships and advertisements at Tryon International Equestrian Center.

A federal grand jury indictment issued July 16 charges Frost with conspiracy to commit federal program fraud, federal program fraud and mail fraud. She is the fifth county official to be indicted — and the only one among them to hold elected office — amid a federal corruption investigation that had thus far mostly centered on the corrupt activities of administrators and a contractor.

Frost is due to appear in court July 24. The most serious charges against her carry a maximum prison term of 20 years.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said its investigation into county government is ongoing.

Prosecutors say that beginning in early 2014 and until November 2017, Frost conspired with Greene to misapply the county's economic development incentive funds "to support various equestrian enterprises." A horse owner, Frost had "a personal interest in supporting equestrian venues" such as the Tryon center and its Florida affiliate, the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, prosecutors said.

Records previously obtained by the Citizen Times showed Buncombe government paid more than $575,000 for Tryon center sponsorships and related advertisements, as well as thousands of dollars spent on out-of-state trips, meetings in Tryon and a little-known dinner reception for some of the area's top business leaders.

Frost's attorney, Tony Scheer of Charlotte, said prosecutors accuse her of secretly arranging the Tryon sponsorship and hiding it from fellow commissioners when the indictment itself acknowledges that several others — including airport staff — were aware.

The partnership with the equestrian centers was a "good-faith effort" by Frost to bring a benefit to Buncombe, Scheer said. He pointed to the airport's own claims that it saw increased traffic between Asheville and Florida following the advertisements.

"Ellen was a diligent and committed public servant," Scheer said. "This is a woman who was highly respected on both sides of the political spectrum for her work on the commission.

"I read this indictment and I feel like it's trying to paint this picture that Ellen Frost sold the taxpayers down the road to the tune of a half-million dollars for an occasional seat at a table and some appetizers. And I think it strains credibility that she would do that given her extensive record of public service."

Asheville airport used to cover up scheme

Frost and Greene negotiated with the equestrian centers without the knowledge nor approval of the Board of Commissioners as required by state law, according to federal officials. They then took steps to cover the scheme by using the funds to promote the Asheville Regional Airport, even though the airport is unrelated to county operations.

The equestrian venues were unaware of the scheme, according to the indictment.

► Buncombe County investigation: Brownie Newman didn't find Ellen Frost 'believable' in 2017

"To perpetuate the cover-up, 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," a U.S. Attorney's Office news release said.

A spokesperson for Asheville Regional Airport and officials with Tryon International Equestrian Center have not responded to Citizen Times' requests for comment.

Feds: Frost used sponsorship perks

Frost is accused of taking advantage of perks offered to high-level sponsors, including a members-only area known as the Legends Club where she frequently used a VIP table with friends and other attendees, including the owners of the Polk County farm where she stabled her horses.

She had oversight on who could use the county-sponsored VIP table, although it was identified by the Tryon center as the Asheville airport table, the indictment said.

Records obtained by the Citizen Times showed Frost was aware of the equestrian-related payments and was billed as a host for the swanky dinner related to the Tryon venue, despite previously saying she did not believe the money spent on the sponsorships was a good use of taxpayer funds.

"I can look myself in the mirror and know that I didn't do anything wrong," Frost told the Citizen Times in February 2018. "My interest was only for economic development for Western North Carolina."

Greene named co-conspirator, but no additional charges

Though Greene was named as a co-conspirator, she was not charged with additional offenses in the July 16 indictment.

Prosecutors say that when a county employee processing a $125,000 purchase order for the Tryon sponsorship raised concerns about the amount, Greene within a few days eliminated the employee's position and transferred her to work as an assistant librarian — costing the staffer a $16,000 annual pay cut.

Frost served on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners from 2012-18. She announced nearly a year before her last term ended that she wouldn't seek re-election, saying she instead wanted to spend more time with family.

Greene, along with other county officials who have pleaded guilty to corruption charges — ex-managers Mandy Stone and Jon Creighton, longtime county contractor Joe Wiseman and former business intelligence manager Michael Greene — are scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 28.

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You can read the indictment here:

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