Friday, Feb. 10, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Kathleen Vermillion didn’t gain notoriety in the typical Las Vegas way.
She didn’t build a casino or miles of housing tracts or run a TV law practice. She earned her recognition by calling attention to the plight of the valley’s homeless young people through a charity she founded more than 10 years ago, the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth.
It took time, but eventually local celebrities and politicians flocked to join the charity, whose work was highlighted in local and national publications.
Much of that reputation, built over a decade, was severely damaged over the course of a few weeks by allegations of misappropriated funds and unchecked spending. The Nevada attorney general and FBI are investigating the charity’s finances.
Some lay blame for the charity’s damaged reputation at the feet of the person most responsible for its success: Vermillion.
Others say the charity’s board didn’t care or wasn’t aggressive enough to deal with the issues.
“Let me phrase this carefully,” said a former board member of the charity, one of a handful who resigned in December. “There are charities that have boards where people sit on them just to get their name on the letterhead. … We had board members who got on because their bosses told them to do charitable stuff, some who thought it would help their careers because when Marcus Conklin (a state Assemblyman), Kathleen and Steve Sisolak (a county commissioner) are involved in a charity, who doesn’t want to be?”
(Sisolak, who had a five-year romantic relationship with Vermillion, was a donor but not a board member.)
The ladder-climbing motives of some board members led to weak oversight of the charity’s budget, the board member said.
“We would have some meetings go over an hour and board members would complain. My feeling was, ‘Don’t you understand we are setting policy that will direct this organization for years to come? You can’t rush through this stuff.’”
Despite such criticisms, none of those interviewed by the Sun — former board members and friends or colleagues of Vermillion — say the Partnership for Homeless Youth wasn’t needed in the community, or that Vermillion wasn’t intensely dedicated to her work on behalf of the struggling young people.
“The charity was her identity,” said Sisolak, whom Vermillion sued last month, alleging defamation and invasion of privacy.
“She and the charity were synonymous,” he said.
Sisolak said he remembers walking neighborhoods south of Tropicana Avenue along Maryland Parkway with Vermillion — she was known as Kathleen Boutin — and former UNLV basketball coach Lon Kruger and his wife, Barbara. They’d go door to door telling children about the charity.
“She had a knack for being able to identify these children,” Sisolak said. “She could point to children on the side of the road and say, ‘Those children are homeless,’ and she’d be right. She’d go up to them and give them gift cards, give them numbers to call.”
That skill was the product of her personal history.
Vermillion experienced homelessness as a kid. She admits being a runaway couch-surfer while growing up in Henderson. The experience influenced her charity work and gave her a savvy you can’t learn in school, people close to her said.
“Listen, you hang out with these kids any length of time and you see they are shrewd, or at least those who survive are,” one board member said. “They know the streets, they know how to survive. Kathleen knows how to do what she needs to do.”
In 1999, Boutin was working as a program coordinator for the Clark County Health District. She oversaw programs that helped 300 to 400 children each month with clothing and shelter and sought birth records to determine what vaccinations a child needed.
At that time, the Health District created the Coalition for Homeless Youth, the precursor to the Partnership for Homeless Youth.
While working for the Health District, Boutin started her own business, TAM of Henderson, a school that taught “techniques of alcohol management” required to obtain certification to sell or serve alcohol.
Meanwhile, Boutin sought to change a state law she believed was a barrier to working with many homeless youth. Minors seeking help from a group like the Partnership for Homeless Youth were required to get parental consent. Boutin successfully lobbied to eliminate the requirement. With the change in the law, the partnership filed for not-for-profit, tax-exempt status and opened a drop-in shelter on East Karen Avenue, near Maryland Parkway and Sahara Avenue.
It didn’t take long for people to take notice. In January 2002, the American Marketing Association Foundation awarded the charity a small scholarship. By April, Boutin helped organize the “Divas of Law” fundraiser at the Palms’ Ghost Bar.
Terrible Herbst soon joined the partnership, creating the Safe Place program, which allowed youth who were homeless or in trouble to stop at any Herbst convenience market for assistance. Employees were trained to recognize problems and refer them to service providers. Herbst provided a $60,000 donation to fund the program.
“If you asked anyone three years ago, they probably would have said we don’t have homeless teens in Southern Nevada,” Boutin said at the time.
The charity’s success prompted one would-be politician to run for office. In August 2002, Marcus Conklin, who was among the board members who recently resigned from the charity, told the Review-Journal that his volunteering with the partnership made it “abundantly clear I wanted to pursue (politics) to see if I could help these children out in more ways.”
Once elected, Conklin sponsored a proclamation to create a Homeless Youth Awareness Day in Nevada. He is now poised to become speaker of the Assembly.
Conklin could not be reached to comment for this story.
The charity’s reputation continued to grow.
In 2004, Boutin sold her business to devote herself full-time to the partnership. The weekly newspaper CityLife named her a “local hero.” In 2005, CNN interviewed one of the charity’s employees for a story about the plight of the nation’s homeless youth.
And it kept going. In March 2007, former U.S. Congressman Jon Porter read into the congressional record a “tribute to Kathleen Boutin,” applauding her for “her leadership and her continued success … to improve the lives of our cities’ youth.” A month later he supported the creation of a National Homeless Youth Awareness Month.
Family Circle published an article about Boutin and the partnership, “Safe Haven.”
“Kathleen Boutin was a homeless teen who turned her life around. Now she’s a mom helping other runaways get back on track,” the article stated.
Money poured in.
Lawmakers allocated $1.3 million to the partnership to help youth who were too old for the foster care system. The late William Fry donated $250,000 in 2007 to create a new drop-in shelter. Celine Dion gave part of the proceeds from her 500th show at Caesars Palace to the charity, among others. In occasional obituaries, families requested donations be made to the Partnership for Homeless Youth.
Boutin parlayed her growing profile into a seat on the Henderson City Council, easily winning election in 2009. Her campaign was funded by high-profile Las Vegans — Dina Titus, Jack Binion, Sisolak and former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. Former Gov. Bob Miller also hosted a fundraiser.
By then, Boutin and Sisolak were a true power couple. Sisolak had won election to the Clark County Commission a year earlier. Boutin boasted to the Review-Journal that he had given her a promise ring and they planned to marry.
“He’s always thinking about the feelings of the underdog,” she said of Sisolak.
Like most couples, the two hit rough spots, breaking up then reuniting multiple times over the course of the five-year relationship, friends said. A Sun story in February 2009 noted that Sisolak had donated to Boutin’s campaign but “the romance didn’t work out.”
They were back together a short time later.
“Their relationship was volatile, on-again, off-again,” said one Henderson resident familiar with the two.
As the relationship began to unravel again late last year, Boutin was dealing with other troubles — a top employee at the partnership began to question how things were being run.
Sisolak and Boutin broke up around Thanksgiving. A few weeks later, her new executive director, Arash Ghafoori, questioned how she was spending the charity’s money, especially the transfer of some $300,000 over two years from the Partnership to the Homeless Youth Foundation.
The foundation had been created to raise money for the partnership. Boutin, who by now had changed her name to Vermillion, was the foundation’s chief operating officer.
She claimed the money was transferred to pay her salary of about $125,000 for the first few years of the foundation’s existence, until it started raising money on its own.
The dispute between Vermillion and Ghafoori led board members to ask that both take drug tests. Vermillion put Ghafoori on paid administrative leave, and Ghafoori wrote the attorney general asking him to investigate the charity’s finances.
Partnership employees told of a topsy-turvy work environment. One employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said Vermillion was unpredictable. She would be absent from the office for days and then, upon returning, be intensely critical of what was happening there.
“It was Kathleen’s world, and everyone is affected by her emotional state,” the employee told the Sun. “If she is in a bad state of mind and goes into her bottom swing, everyone fears for their jobs. It would change day to day — from her praising people to talking about firing them.”
Co-workers might complain to board members, but their complaints never reached a full-board discussion. Vermillion “tightly controlled her board” and was “good at manipulating perceptions,” the employee said.
“There was a good Kathleen and a bad Kathleen,” the employee said. “The good Kathleen was very sincere about the children; the bad Kathleen would throw anyone out of the bus.”
The remaining board members fired her in January and reinstated Ghafoori. Vermillion was no longer part of the charity she had nurtured and grown in a city with a reputation for ignoring those in need.
It appears the personal and professional turmoil has taken its toll on Vermillion. Her daughter called for medical assistance last week, believing her mom had attempted suicide.
On Thursday, she voluntarily dismissed her defamation lawsuit against Sisolak and Clark County, in which she had alleged the results of her drug test had been illegally released.
Greg Esposito, one of the few former board members who would speak on the record, summed up the story of Vermillion and her charity this way: “What Kathleen funded and what people like Steve Sisolak funded was a home. She built it from nothing. She got a law changed. And the charity was, is and hopefully will continue to be something the community needs.”
Maybe, he said, Vermillion’s personality became so entwined with the charity that she lost herself, that she could no longer separate her life from the lives of those she was trying to help.
“After 10 years of rescuing these children, of hearing the worst stories you can imagine, maybe I wouldn’t be,” he said. He stops himself, getting choked up a bit. “Maybe I’d be a little affected, too.”