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'Three Cups' author Greg Mortenson must pay $1 million to charity

April 05, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • The Montana state attorney general has tossed Greg Mortenson out of his own charity, the Central Asia Institute, and now will force him to pay back $1 million.
The Montana state attorney general has tossed Greg Mortenson out of his… (Associated Press )

Kansas City, Mo. — The road to hell is typically paved with good intentions. For Greg Mortenson, it was laid down with two New York Times bestsellers, hundreds of public appearances and the idea that Afghanistan and Pakistan could be saved if you built enough schools in them.

Hidden beneath those efforts appear to have been “significant lapses in judgment” involving charity money. Those lapses have led the Montana state attorney general to toss Mortenson out of his own charity, the Central Asia Institute, and now to force him to pay back $1 million, according to the results of an investigation announced Thursday.  

“The story of Central Asia Institute and Greg Mortenson evokes notions of the best of our aspirations to do good and the generosity of the American public,” Montana Atty. Gen. Steve Bullock wrote about the charity, based in Bozeman, Mont. “It involves the efforts of a complicated person who has worked tirelessly on behalf of a noble pursuit, even while acting in a way that jeopardized that pursuit.”

That “way” involved donor money — given to promote education and literacy in war-torn and impoverished Central Asia — being spent on charter flights for family vacations, clothing and Internet downloads, the report said. The charismatic Mortenson, whose personal wealth “multiplied significantly” as the charity grew more popular, also took inappropriate speaking fees from the charity for his promotional work, the investigation found.  

Many of his presentations centered on experiences he wrote about in his book, "Three Cups of Tea," a dramatic chronicle of how he became a humanitarian in Central Asia.

The Central Asia Institute’s board failed to properly manage the charity for 10 years, by the Montana attorney general’s reckoning. For that, the state negotiated a settlement that will allow the charity to keep running — except with stricter control over its finances and without its two remaining board members. They'll leave in a year and be replaced by a new seven-member board.

Mortenson formally stepped down as executive director in November and has already paid back half of the $1 million he owes to the charity.

Its interim executive director, Anne Beyersdorfer, told the Associated Press that Mortenson would remain a paid employee of the charity but would not serve on the new board.

“He's the heart and soul of the organization," Beyersdorfer said. "He's the co-founder, and I think we all think of him as our chief inspiration officer."

The investigation was spurred by damning investigations into the charity and Mortenson’s past published a year ago by "60 Minutes" and by fellow bestselling author Jon Krakauer (“Into Thin Air,” “Where Men Win Glory”). Krakauer's massive exposé,  “Three Cups of Deceit,” savaged Mortenson and his work.

“The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem,” wrote Krakauer, a former Central Asia Institute donor who became one of the charity’s most dogged critics.

“Mortenson has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built. 'Three Cups of Tea' has much in common with 'A Million Little Pieces,' the infamous autobiography by James Frey that was exposed as a sham.”

The charity has spent $4 million since 2006 buying copies of “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools” to give away to schools and libraries to promote its work; it has also spent $5 million advertising the books, according to the Montana attorney general’s office.

The results of the investigation come at a sensitive time for American charities working in the developing world.

San Diego-based Invisible Children, aimed at stopping Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, received intense criticism after releasing “Kony2012,” a powerful 30-minute advocacy video thought to have become the most viral video of all time. The reaction was so intense that co-founder Jason Russell suffered a “brief reactive psychosis” because of stress and dehydration, his family said, leading him to run naked through the streets of San Diego.

That charity has been criticized in similar fashion to the way Mortenson’s has — too much money spent on promotion and too little on relief work; too much attention on rock-star charity workers and not enough on the people they’re helping; and too much emphasis on fundraising and too few tough questions about how the charity is doing and why it even exists.

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