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As Tumbleweed board stands by director, questions still remain

As Tumbleweed board stands by director, questions still remain

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Tumbleweed Runaway Program offices at 505 North 24th Street. March 4, 2015.

The Tumbleweed board of directors said Thursday it has completed an investigation into complaints about the nonprofit’s executive director, Sheri Boelter, and says she continues to have the board’s full support.

But questions persist about complaints from several former employees that Boelter exaggerated the number of at-risk and homeless youth the agency serves.

One of those former employees, Sabrina Currie, was among the first to formally alert the board of the discrepancies in a six-page letter. She said Thursday she has not been interviewed by the board.

Also, the Pride Foundation, a regional advocacy agency, has frozen a recent $7,500 grant to Tumbleweed until it hears from the board.

Tumbleweed had $753,000 in total revenue for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, according to disclosure forms filed with the IRS, which included $283,000 in federal grants and local contracts with School District 2 and Youth Court Services worth $179,000. Boelter received about $78,000 in total compensation that year, the records indicate.

Beyond issuing its statement Thursday, Tumbleweed’s board has not provided additional comment about the complaints or allowed employees, including Boelter, to discuss the matter.

The Tumbleweed board began reviewing the complaints after several former employees, including Currie and another past development director, said they believed Boelter had regularly misrepresented the number of homeless youth it serves during public presentations and on grant applications.

For example, Boelter has said that during a July 2013 community survey, she and a former employee discovered an encampment in the Lockwood area containing at least 50 homeless youth.

Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder, however, said recently that deputies rarely encounter youth in outdoor camps, and never with more than two or three youths together.

In addition, Boelter’s explanations for how misinformation about Tumbleweed appeared in Glamour magazine and on the Pride Foundation’s website have been disputed by both organizations.

Thorough investigation

In its written statement Thursday, Tumbleweed said members of its volunteer board spent “hundreds of work hours” investigating the allegations and said it found no evidence that funds were misappropriated or “that any discrepancies in data affected any grants.”

The board also found no evidence that any staff member had been directed or encouraged to inflate data about at-risk and homeless youth.

Rather, Tumbleweed’s data on youth homelessness was found to be under-reported by the Yellowstone Youth Crisis Network, an area coalition of service providers that conducted its own review of Tumbleweed’s files, according to the statement.

“The board continues to believe Sheri Boelter to be the right person running Tumbleweed, and she has the support of the board going forward,” the statement reads.

Number discrepancies

Last October, as Tumbleweed supporters and potential donors sipped wine during the nonprofit’s annual fundraiser at the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Billings, they listened to stories of struggle and hope.

One of the more wrenching stories was said to have occurred the previous February on an evening when the temperature had plunged to 26 degrees below zero. Fleeing the bitter cold, 70 homeless teens showed up at Tumbleweed's drop-in center; 13 of them admitted to having in the past exchanged sex for a warm place to sleep, the crowd was told.

Boelter and board chair Paul Collins led the evening’s presentations. This particular story was delivered by emcee Tim Pollard, the husband of another board member.

The story wasn't completely true.

Boelter said as much five days later in a private email conversation with Currie, who then was Tumbleweed’s development director. Currie had questioned Boelter about the information presented during the fundraising gala.

Boelter suggested to Currie that Pollard may have misunderstood the numbers.

She said Pollard had been told 70 was the total number of homeless youth for the whole winter, and that only six had been at the drop-in center on the minus-26 degree night.

However, Boelter herself had told a variation of the same story to The Gazette months earlier, and she apparently told it again to Glamour Magazine even after Currie questioned the numbers.

On May 30, 2014, Boelter described a subzero crisis to a Gazette reporter that is similar to the one that was presented at the Crowne Plaza four months later.

"So we have a HOPE drop-in center," Boelter said during the recorded interview with The Gazette. "Kids would be in the inside. It was minus 24 degrees outside, and we had like 58 kids that had nowhere to go that night."

The information was published in a Gazette article the following day.

In November, a third version was offered in a profile of Boelter for Glamour Magazine in which she was named one of "50 Phenomenal Women of the Year Who Are Making a Difference."

"On one particular night last year when the temperature hit 26 degrees below zero, 68 teens showed up at the organization's drop-in center, where they knew they would find food, shelter from the cold, and one other life essential — hope," the story reads.

Boelter recently told Last Best News, a Billings-based news website, that she did not supply the information for the Glamour story and that the writer must have “googled” it.

The magazine, however, said in a statement to The Gazette that Boelter personally supplied the information in an email dated Nov. 12 to its writer, more than a month after she acknowledged its inaccuracy to Currie.

Boelter’s statistic cited during the Crowne Plaza gala about youth who had exchanged sex for shelter has also been questioned.

Boelter told KTVQ in September 2014 that nine youth had talked about selling their bodies to stay warm the previous winter. During the gala one week later, the number was presented as 13 in a single night. Boelter later told Currie that 13 was the winter total.

That number was an estimate, Boelter told Last Best News. After Tumbleweed's board began asking questions about the data, Tumbleweed employees reviewed its records and found the winter total was three times higher at 36 youths.

LGBTQ teens

The Pride Foundation, which advocates for LGBTQ rights, highlighted Tumbleweed's work in a July 2014 article on its website. Using numbers provided by Tumbleweed, the article stated the Billings agency served more than 200 LGBTQ youth in the past year who were not residing with their legal guardian.

The post also said that 90 homeless LGBTQ youth slept outside "last night," and another 15 were couch-surfing with friends.

Those numbers were disputed by Currie, who wrote in her letter to the board that she "never saw one piece of data or any kind of report that suggested this information that Sheri Boelter gave to the Pride Foundation."

Boelter, in the Last Best News interview, said the number she had given to the Pride Foundation was 48 youths forced to sleep outside.

The Pride Foundation, in a statement, said the information included in the article was provided by Boelter.

Tumbleweed was awarded a grant from the Pride Foundation for 2014-15 after the blog post appeared. Currie submitted the application.

"All of the information in that (grant) application came directly from Sheri Boelter," Currie wrote in her letter to the board. "I was never given any kind of report to assist me in filling out the grant application. I question the accuracy of the information that was submitted to the Pride Foundation."

The Pride Foundation declined to provide a copy of the grant application, saying it’s confidential, but a spokesperson said that it is not disbursing the $7,500 grant until it is provided further information by the Tumbleweed board.

Other discrepancies

Counting the number of homeless youth in an area is notoriously difficult.

Tumbleweed’s estimates, as published in its press releases and local news outlets, have consistently put the range of homeless youths sleeping outside on a given night between 40 and 150.

For instance, in two 2013 articles published a month apart in The Gazette and the Yellowstone Valley Woman magazine, Boelter states that 44 youth slept outside on a recent night.

The number of “couch hoppers,” however, is said to be quite different: 480 in the Gazette story, but only 225 in the YVW article.

The Gazette has requested annual data on the youth Tumbleweed serves, but the organization has not provided it.

In contrast, representatives from two similar organizations in Fargo, N.D., were able to provide client data during a short phone conversation.

The Tumbleweed board’s statement Thursday notes that the organization has improved policies on how data is reported and updated.

In a separate statement issued earlier this month, the Tumbleweed board said it would correct any misstatements or inaccuracies made by Tumbleweed staff.

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