Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect additional information provided Thursday morning by Paul Collins, chairman of the Tumbleweed board.
Sheri Boelter, executive director of the Tumbleweed Runaway Program in Billings since 2011, has left the organization.
Beginning late last year, several former Tumbleweed employees complained to the Tumbleweed board of directors that Boelter had exaggerated or fabricated data regarding the number of homeless youth served by the organization.
In March, the board ultimately expressed its full confidence in Boelter, after what the board said was a thorough investigation of the complaints.
Paul Collins, an attorney at the Billings firm Crowley Fleck, who is also chairman of the Tumbleweed board, said Wednesday that Boelter no longer heads the organization, but he refused to answer any other questions, saying “employees have a constitutional right to privacy.”
Earlier Wednesday, when a Last Best News reporter called the Tumbleweed office, a woman who answered the phone said Boelter was not in. Asked when she would return, the woman replied, “she no longer works here, actually.” Asked when she left the organization, the woman said, “yesterday.”
Collins, asked if Boelter was no longer working for Tumbleweed, said, ”I can confirm that she is no longer the executive director.” Thursday morning, he said that Boelter “left the employment of Tumbleweed” on Dec. 22. He also said that Mary Hernandez has been named Tumbleweed’s interim executive director while the board looks for a new director.
One more thing he added was that Boelter’s “end of employment at Tumbleweed has nothing to do with any past or present employees.” Boelter could not be reached for comment.
Tumbleweed is a nonprofit agency founded in 1976. Headquartered at 505 N. 24th St., it provides services to runaway, homeless and otherwise at-risk youth and their families. Those services include emergency shelter and transitional housing, support groups and family counseling.
When questions were raised about Boelter’s leadership, the first person to come forward was Sabrina Currie, who had previously been Tumbleweed’s development director. She sent the board a six-page letter last December outlining her concerns about what she said were “deceptive and fraudulent” practices at Tumbleweed.
In February, Currie’s predecessor as development director, Carmen Price, sent her own letter to the board, saying she had become “increasingly concerned that the organization’s director continually misrepresented the agency’s reporting protocol and acted deceptively by camouflaging the agency’s internal procedures as well as the number of youth it serves.”
Price zeroed in on one specific instance in which she suspected Boelter of inflating or inventing statistics. That involved Boelter’s claim that she had discovered an encampment of more than 50 homeless teenagers during a Youth Count survey jointly organized by Tumbleweed and the Billings Metro Vista project.
All sorts of discrepancies were found in the surveys Boelter turned in as part of the Youth Count, as reported in the original Last Best News story. In a follow-up story in the Billings Gazette, Sheriff Mike Linder expressed considerable skepticism about the possibility of anyone having seen that large an encampment of homeless teens.
One of Currie’s main complaints concerned a statement originally made by the spouse of a Tumbleweed board member during the organization’s annual fundraiser. That statement was that on a bitterly cold February night in 2014, 70 homeless teens showed up at Tumbleweed’s drop-in center, and 13 of them said they had in the past exchanged sex for a warm place to sleep.
A similar story, though with slightly different numbers, cropped up in several publications, including Glamour magazine, when it named Boelter one of “50 Phenomenal Women of the Year” in November 2014. In Glamour, the same story was told but the number of youths who showed up at Tumbleweed was given as 68.
Boelter later said there had been a misunderstanding before the annual fundraiser, and that 70 was actually the number of youths “with no safe place to go this winter,” and that 13 was the total number of youths “this winter who admitted selling their bodies.”
As for the story in Glamour, Boelter told Last Best News that she did not give the magazine the information used in her profile. “If you ask Glamour magazine where they got their information, they Googled it,” she said.
A spokesperson for Glamour later said that the “information in question was provided by Boelter to our writer, and the magazine has an email transcript of the exchange.”
Concerns similar to those raised by Curry and Price were aired by Tasha LeClair, a former outreach worker at Tumbleweed, and by one former and one then-current Tumbleweed employee, both of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2013, Tumbleweed had total revenues of $753,625, of which $283,108 came from federal grants and $256,123 from private contributions and grants. Other major sources of income were $35,000 in court service fees, $130,822 from a contract with School District 2 and $13,275 in miscellaneous revenue. Boelter received about $78,000 in total compensation that year.