Following The Money Trail.

Muddy hoofprints photo by Dr. David Marlin

How did Buncombe County manage to spend $577,000 on an event 45 miles away … and not even realize it?

Item: Exactly a year ago, Enquiring Minds published a post titled “Betting on the Horses” (see ) which examined how it came to pass that Buncombe County taxpayers had contributed over half a million dollars to promote the World Equestrian Games, which were held in Mill Spring, near Tryon, last September.

Item: Earlier this week U.S. Attorney for Western North Carolina Andrew Murray announced that a federal grand jury in Asheville had “returned a criminal bill of indictment against former Buncombe County Commissioner Ellen Madans Frost, charging her with conspiracy to commit fraud, federal program fraud, and mail fraud, for her involvement in a scheme to use more than $575,000 in Buncombe County funds to sponsor equestrian activities in North Carolina and Florida.”

Sources who insisted on anonymity told EM that Frost’s indictment stems from the same ongoing investigation that has resulted in the prosecution of several county officials and vendors on public corruption and related charges.

“Some of these people, when they get [elected], they’re like kids turned loose in a candy store,” the source said. “This right here is one good example.”

The Back Story: We’re all gonna be rich

Last year Enquiring Minds observed that despite the hype that promised WEG would be “the biggest sporting event in the U.S., and the fourth-biggest in the world,” it seemed that “a goodly number of Buncombe County residents appear not even to be aware that the World Equestrian Games are about to land on their doorstep.  Still fewer appear to care.  And of those that do, some are questioning why Buncombe County officialdom has spent more than $650,000 to sponsor an event associated with the super wealthy, and with limited general public appeal, that will be happening 50  miles and two counties away.”

The WEG promoters’ ready response to that misgiving was that the entire region, from Knoxville to Charlotte and from Roanoke to Atlanta, was about to become awash in a tide of equestrian and tourist money. The consensus put WEG-related revenue at half a billion-with-a-“b” dollars. Spending .001 of that amount on advertising seemed more than reasonable, at least to Frost and to former County Manager Wanda Greene, who lent her enthusiastic support to the project .

Oops …

As it turned out, the Tryon edition of the WEG was something short of spectacular. First, three inches of rain turned everything dirt into oatmeal.  There were traffic snarls and logistical problems.  A horse had to be euthanized.  Midway through the games’ run, it was disclosed that the state’s Department of Environmental Quality had issued multiple violation notices to TIEC for “exceeding water pollution standards” in surrounding creeks, as a result of construction.  A second horse had to be put down.  Grooms and other workers complained about their accommodations (they ended up in tents).  The games’ impresario, New York billionaire Mark Bellissimo, tossed out a sorry-for-all-the-fuss-folks apology and said on-with-the-show. (Frost, of course, had no control over the weather. The fiasco, however, touched off a belated how-the-hell-did-this-happen investigation.)

A Trifecta of Charges

Frost faces charges of fraud, mail fraud, and federal program fraud.

Any fraud is “intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right.” (Merriam-Webster) Mail fraud comprises using “a United States post office or even a private mail carrier to send or receive any materials related to a scheme to commit fraud.” Federal program fraud involves “theft or bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds” (FindLaw).

Frost is scheduled to appear in court July 24.

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Post Script

On July 18, Enquiring Minds reached out to County Commission Chairman Brownie Newman, as follows:

Dear Brownie,

Enquiring Minds is preparing a piece providing background on the Frost business.  AC-T quotes you this morning as saying you “suspected” something was amiss about her and the TIEC funds as early as the fall of 2017, and that you even approached her with your concerns; in fact, you even let her know you would not be supporting her re-election because of your misgivings.  She sent you a lame reply denying any wrongdoing, and apparently that was the extent of any investigation. 

Which begs the question:  Why?  We’re talking half a million dollars of taxpayer money here.  People are wanting to know now the entire edifice of county government managed to ignore — or anyway fail to look into — a discrepancy of this magnitude involving an elected county official.

Any observations?  Comments?

Thanks in advance,

Roger McCredie

for Enquiring Minds 

Newman has not replied.   

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