By GAIL SCHONTZLER
CBS News “60 Minutes” on Friday alleged that Bozeman philanthropist Greg Mortenson fabricated some of the most dramatic and inspiring stories in his bestselling book “Three Cups of Tea” and one year spent more money promoting his book than building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mortenson, 53, founder and executive director of the Central Asia Institute, defended his work building schools for children, especially girls, in remote Islamic 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 told the Chronicle in a phone interview Friday.
“I stand by the information conveyed in my book,” he wrote in a statement, “and by the value of CAI’s work in empowering local communities to build and operate schools that have educated more than 60,000 students.”
Mortenson said CAI’s success in fundraising – last year it raised $23.7 million – means it can build 63 new schools this year, in addition to more than 170 already established.
He denied several “60 Minutes” allegations, and defended his financial dealings, but appeared to concede that one key story in his book was not literally true.
The investigation by correspondent Steve Kroft, to be broadcast Sunday night, 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.
“I stand by the story of ‘Three Cups of Tea,'” Mortenson said in a written statement, but added, “The time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.
“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 Friday evening, “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.
“I thought it best to befriend the people detaining me,” he said, adding they may have perceived it differently.
He also responded to questions “60 Minutes” raised about his finances in a letter, dated Wednesday. 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. CAI provided the “60 Minutes” letter to the Chronicle Friday.
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 percent 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.
Mortenson responded that he gets a royalty of about 40 or 50 cents per book, and that he has contributed more than $100,000 of his own money to CAI, which has more than offset the book royalties. The $30,000 fee for speaking is average, he said, adding he does some events for free.
When the popularity of “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools” took off, he said, CAI’s board of directors decided to “seize the momentum” and do significant advertising for the book and donate copies to libraries, schools, retirement homes, veterans centers and churches.
The percentage of CAI money that goes toward schools is higher than “60 Minutes” assumed, he told the Chronicle, because during the last five years it has been building a “nest egg” of savings to make CAI sustainable into the future. The fund is exclusively for overseas teacher training, scholarships, new schools and supplies, he said. As of Friday, it had grown to more than $25.6 million, according to a financial statement CAI released.
In 2009, the year “60 Minutes” cited, another $5.2 million was added to savings.
CAI’s public 990 tax form shows that in 2009 the charity had $14 million in income. It spent $3.9 million on schools overseas, and $4.6 million on travel, guest lectures and educating Americans about the plight of Pakistani and Afghan children. It paid Mortenson $180,000 in salary and other compensation.
One reason for the nest egg is so the work will continue, “if something happens to me,” Mortenson said, adding that he’s trying to work himself out of the organization over the next few years.
“As of now, I pay all my own travel expenses, and CAI gets the donations,” he said.
“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.
Karin Ronnow, the Chronicle’s assistant managing editor, has been reporting extensively on Mortenson since 2007, visiting schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Besides covering Mortenson for the Chronicle, she has also contracted with CAI to produce its annual “Journey of Hope” publication, which it sends out worldwide.
Ronnow, who did not participate in the writing or editing of this story, said what she has seen of Mortenson’s character during that time does not match the accusations he now faces.
“He sees a huge need and he is always pushing forward to try and meet that need,” she said. Every time she sees Mortenson in Pakistan, “someone else is waiting there to say, ‘Can you help us? Can you help our children?’
“Bottom line, Greg can be a difficult person to work with, often stretched way too thin and constantly on the road. But he is not a liar,” Ronnow said.
Bozeman residents are familiar with the story of how Mortenson, starting with nothing, started building schools in remote villages, creating more hopeful futures for children and creating an alternative to the conservative Islamic madrassas, sometimes at risk to his own health and safety.
Mortenson said he was in Afghanistan three weeks ago and on Friday was diagnosed by a Bozeman doctor with a hole in his heart. He will undergo some type of heart procedure next week.
Mortenson said he had been doing this work for 18 years, and “60 Minutes” had spent several months investigating him, but didn’t try to contact him until March 30, and only gave him a chance to respond “at the 11th hour.” He said Kroft ambushed him with a camera crew at an event in Atlanta where he was speaking to ninth-graders. Mortenson said he declined to give an on-air interview.
“This could be devastating,” he said of the report. “It’s very difficult when you’re being stalked, bullied and harassed.”