Once ubiquitous, Greg Mortenson was feted on “Oprah,” at the Pentagon and on college campuses everywhere. But in the two months since a “60 Minutes” expose questioned spending at his Montana-based charitable foundation and claims made in his best-seller “Three Cups of Tea,” the author-activist has kept a low profile, amid plummeting book sales and mounting legal problems.
Since issuing a short defense of his Central Asia Institute (CAI) shortly after the charges were aired, Mr. Mortenson has not appeared in public again while undergoing a medical procedure to fix a heart condition.
He remains a defendant in a class-action lawsuit filed by two Democratic state lawmakers in Montana seeking the return of millions of dollars in donations and book profits based on Mr. Mortenson’s now-disputed role in helping build hundreds of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Contacted by The Washington Times, CAI officials provided a statement attributed to new acting director Anne Beyersdorfer saying the group was in “cooperative discussions with the Montana attorney general regarding its activities. CAI stands by its prior information returns and the good works that it has done. We do not believe it appropriate to comment further.”
Although some legal experts have raised questions about the idea that duped readers can be “defrauded” by an author, an Illinois schoolteacher this month filed a second class-action lawsuit against the embattled author and his publisher.
According to the lawsuit, Lake County teacher Deborah Netter is seeking compensation for all readers “who purchased ‘Three Cups of Tea’ and did not get what they paid for, but instead, were wrongly induced by each of the defendants to buy a phony and fictional story as opposed to the truth.”
Mr. Mortenson’s one statement to date on the controversy came just after the “60 Minutes” piece and a follow-up report by best-selling author Jon Krakauer. Once a Mortenson supporter, Mr. Krakauer now believes the author exaggerated or fabricated key events in “Three Cups of Tea” and its follow-up, “Silence into Stones,” and that CAI mishandled the huge sums in donations that Mr. Mortenson’s work and frequent speeches generated.
In that statement Mr. Mortenson denied any financial wrongdoing and stood by the events of his book. His one in-depth interview before surgery was for Outside, an adventure/travel magazine, where he denied any accusations of fraud but admitted his co-author, David Oliver Relin, took some “literary license” with the timeline of the story.
Then, citing his health problems, he disappeared from public view.
“Three Cups of Tea” spent 220 weeks on the New York Times nonfiction paperback bestseller list, before finally dropping off two weeks after the CBS News report aired. Nearly four million copies have been sold.
The book, told from the perspective of Mr. Relin, details Mr. Mortenson’s founding of the Central Asia Institute and its efforts to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, often in the face of opposition and skepticism from local leaders and U.S. officials. The CAI insists it is still going strong in its most recent newsletter, stating it plans to open 60 new schools across Afghanistan in 2011.
But according to the institute’s most recent tax forms, in 2008 about 40 percent of expenses went to administrative costs, including promotion of “Three Cups of Tea,” and 60 percent went to programs overseas. The charity spent more than $1.7 million in “book-related expenses” alone in 2008, including first-class or charter flights for numerous book tour appearances.
Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, said he was shocked the charity had spent so much money promoting “Three Cups of Tea” and received no royalties.
“Everyone seemed to be O.K. with this because [Mr. Mortenson] is such a popular, liked figure. Yet he’s using his charity to enrich himself and promote his book,” said Mr. Borochoff, whose institute highlighted financing irregularities at CAI a year before the “60 Minutes” broadcast.
The CAI board of directors said in a formal statement that donations made by individuals who are inspired by “Three Cups of Tea” “far exceed CAI’s book-related expenditures.” Donations in 2008 totaled more than $13.6 million, and CAI reports they raised more than $23 million in 2010.
The charity also said that although it receives no royalties from the book, Mr. Mortenson has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to CAI.
CAI won one legal battle last week when the charity was dropped from the lawsuit filed by the Montana legislators, Jean Price and Michele Reinhart in May. The Montana Democrats accused Mr. Mortenson and the CAI of using false statements to entice donations.
Alexander Blewett III, the attorney representing Ms. Reinhart, said the case against the CAI was being looked into by state Attorney General Steve Bullock’s office and they decided to defer to that investigation.
Mr. Blewett added the fight was far from over, stating the lawsuit is moving full-steam ahead in pursuing Mr. Mortenson, Mr. Relin, and Penguin Books for lying about events in the book.
Mr. Borochoff said the charity appeared to be based on a worthy idea, and said he hopes it could find a way to continue its mission of providing schools for underprivileged children in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Hopefully, something can remain from all of this, because it’s a good idea that’s just not implemented well,” Mr. Borochoff said. “Someone needs to take the ball and run with it, or form another organization not tainted by Mortenson. … If you want to be a nonprofit, you need to play by the rules, and he seems to think he’s above the rules.”