Ellen Frost, the local government official who co-conspired to spend $575,000 in public funds on Mark Bellissimo’s equestrian enterprises, has admitted to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States in a plea agreement. This means all other charges are dropped.

When first indicted for multiple frauds last year, Frost could have faced 20 years in jail. A five-year jail sentence – which could be home confinement – and/or $250,000 fine now seems more likely when she is sentenced later this year. The court heard that Ms Frost was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and a cognitive disorder. A colleague, Wanda Greene, involved in the same “scam” has already been sentenced to seven years in jail and fined $100,000.

Buncombe County, North Carolina, of which Frost was elected Commissioner in 2012, is now seeking recovery of misspent funds in a civil suit. There is no suggestion Bellissimo or his associates at Tryon or Wellington knew the expenditure was unauthorised.

According to court documents, around July 2014, Frost began to speak with Greene about her desire to support Tryon and related equestrian activities on behalf of Buncombe county. They used an Economic Development Incentive Fund to provide sponsorship in the name of Asheville Regional airport.

The government’s factual basis says Frost did not engage “to personally enrich herself, and did not receive any kickbacks or any other form of payment in exchange for her support of the contracts.” She did, though, enjoy VIP privileges at horse shows for herself and friends throughout the 2015-16 seasons.

All this activity was discovered by county employees only after Greene retired in June 2017. The details were then unravelled by local journalists. In an early inquiry to Greene the Asheville Citizen Times was shown an “invoice” for $25,000. But the indictment said a digit had been removed and the true sum was $125,000.