Another legal shoe has dropped in the scandal surrounding disgraced humanitarian Greg Mortenson—this time in the form of a lawsuit that seeks the return of donations and damages on behalf of donors to his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). One of the two plaintiffs wants her donation back—and the other a $12 refund for her copy of the book.
In a sign of how Mortenson’s fall from grace is roiling former fans in his home state of Montana, where CAI is based, both plaintiffs, Michele Reinhart and Jean Price, are state Democratic legislators in Missoula.
Mortenson rocketed to celebrity status on the heels of a 2007 memoir, Three Cups of Tea, that tells an engaging story of how a failed mountain-climbing venture inspired him to build schools across Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book brought $60 million in donations to the charity he created and earned him a personal fortune from book royalties and lecture fees. In the process, Mortenson won praise from U.S. leaders such as President Obama and General David Petraeus. His book was even given a spot on the U.S. military’s required reading lists.
A CBS 60 Minutes segment last month, along with an investigation by author Jon Krakauer, brought it all down in flames, reporting that Mortenson had fabricated central parts of his memoir, claimed to build schools that didn’t exist, and, lately at least, had spent more time and money promoting his book than helping schoolchildren overseas.
Mortenson has contested the 60 Minutes account, saying that while some parts of the book may have been compressed, he stands by the information. He has also contested the CBS account of his charity’s misdealing.
The suit, which was filed Thursday in the U.S. district court in Montana, makes a claim for class action “against Mortenson and CAI for fraud, deceit, breach of contract, RICO [racketeering and corrupt organization] violations, unjust enrichment and constructive trust.”
If the suit does get class-action status, it raises the possibility that Mortenson and his foundation—should they eventually be found liable—could be on the hook for millions of dollars. The suit requests that any damages awarded be funneled to a trust that can use the money to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The allegations of fraud are justified, the suit claims, because Mortenson and CAI knowingly took donations and book profits based on false information.
“Mortenson and CAI should be forced to disgorge the purchase price because Michele Reinhart would not have purchased the book Three Cups of Tea had she known that Mortenson’s public statements and books were based on fabricated information,” the suit reads, making the same case for the return of Price’s donation.
The plaintiffs are being represented by Hoyt & Blewett PLLC of Great Falls, Montana, a firm that specializes in personal injury cases. Alexander Blewett III, a partner in the firm, counts himself among the victims of Mortenson’s deceit. “I bought his book, and I listened to him speak, and this whole thing was impressive because it was supposed to be true,” he says. “We’re trying to hold him accountable and trying to get that money where it should have gone.” Blewett declined to make Reinhart and Price available for comment.
Mike Giglio is a reporter at Newsweek.