Three Cups of Tea co-author Greg Mortenson fabricated some of the most dramatic and inspiring stories in his bestselling book and spent more money in one year promoting his book than building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, US broadcaster CBS said in an investigative report.
The report, to be aired by CBS on its “60 Minutes” programme on Sunday night, alleges that Mortenson’s charitable organisation has also taken credit for building schools that do not exist or were built by others. Mortenson was awarded among others the Sitara-e-Pakistan for his work.
The investigation by correspondent Steve Kroft quotes Into Thin Air author and mountaineer Jon Krakauer as saying he learned from one of Mortenson’s companions that the tale of how Mortenson got started was “a beautiful story” but “a lie.”
The book told how Mortenson got lost on a 1993 climb of K2, the world’s second highest peak, and then stumbled exhausted into the remote village of Korphe, was cared for by villagers, and promised to return and build a school. The “60 Minutes” story draws upon observations from the porters who joined Mortenson on his mountain trip in Pakistan and dispute his being lost. They say he only visited Korphe a year later.
The report alleges that numerous schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan that Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute is said to have established either don’t exist or were built by others. According to the CAI’s website, the institute has “successfully established over 170 schools” and helped educate over 68,000 students, with an emphasis on girls’ education.”
Mortenson, 53, founder and executive director of the Central Asia Institute, defended his work of building schools for children, especially girls, in remote villages. “I hope these allegations and attacks, the people doing these things, know this could be devastating for tens of thousands of girls, for the sake of Nielsen ratings and Emmys,” Mortenson was quoted as saying.
“I stand by the information conveyed in my book,” he wrote in a statement. “As the co-author of the book, along with David Oliver Relin, I am responsible for the content in the book. There were many people involved in the story and also those who produced the manuscript. What was done was to simplify the sequence of events for the purposes of telling what was, at times, a complicated story.”
On its website, “60 Minutes” also reported that it interviewed three men whom Mortenson photographed and described as Taliban fighters who kidnapped him in 1996. They denied to CBS being Taliban and said they had protected, not kidnapped Mortenson. One man charged the writer’s version was “totally false,” a tale told “to sell his book.”
Mortenson responded that the men, armed with AK-47s, had “detained” him, kept his passport and money, and had not allowed him to leave for eight days.
He also responded to questions “60 Minutes” raised about his finances in a letter. Kroft’s letter said that a number of people have raised concerns that there is “inadequate separation” between the charity’s finances and Mortenson’s personal financial interests.
The letter cited a warning from CAI’s own attorneys last December and January that if audited by the IRS, Mortenson would likely be found in violation of rules against gaining “excess benefits” from the charity.
Kroft’s letter pointed to CAI’s 2009 nonprofit tax statement to the IRS, and asked why only 41 per cent of the money it raised actually went to pay for schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The letter also questioned whether CAI is spending millions to advertise Mortenson’s best-selling books and to hire charter jets to take him to $30,000 speaking engagements around the country, yet it received almost none of the money from his speeches and books.
“60 Minutes” also reported that it checked on schools CAI claims to have built and found “some of them were empty, built by somebody else, or simply didn’t exist at all. The principals of a number of schools said they had not received any money from CAI in years.”
The idea that the schools are a sham “is untrue,” Mortenson said. He blamed a once-trusted but disgruntled former employee in Pakistan for the problems paying some teachers.
“This could be devastating,” he said of the report. “It’s very difficult when you’re being stalked, bullied and harassed.”
“Three Cups of Tea” was released by Penguin in 2006.
With input from the news desk
Published in The Express Tribune, April 17th, 2011.
Greg Mortenson has replied to the CBS program, read here.