In the spring of 2011 Greg Mortenson was smoking hot and on a roll. His memoir, Three Cups of Tea—advertised as “the astonishing, uplifting story of a real-life Indiana Jones and his remarkable humanitarian campaign in the Taliban’s backyard”—had spent the previous 50 months on The New York Times paperback, nonfiction bestseller list. The book’s white-knuckled account of the perils and privations he’d overcome to build schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan inspired donors to contribute more than $70 million to his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), and turned Mortenson into an international celebrity. His compassion and courage were extolled by Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman, Christiane Amanpour, and other prominent journalists. For three years running Mortenson was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But on April 17, 2011, 60 Minutes aired a profile of Mortenson that cast him in a different light. Correspondent Steve Kroft revealed that CAI was spending more money advertising Mortenson’s books and flying him around the country in private jets than building schools or educating students, and that many important parts of Three Cups of Tea were fabricated from whole cloth. The heartwarming story about Mortenson building his first school to repay the kindness of destitute Pakistani villagers who’d nursed him back to health after he stumbled, lost and emaciated, into their community? It was an elaborately concocted fable. The chapter describing Mortenson’s harrowing eight-day abduction by the Taliban, in which he revealed that his impending execution didn’t seem like “such a bad way to go,” but he was troubled by the fact that his pregnant young wife would never know how he died? A figment of Mortenson’s imagination.
I was one of the sources Kroft grilled on the program that Sunday evening. Twenty-four hours after 60 Minutes dropped its bombshell, Byliner.com published my 22,000-word exposé of Mortenson, Three Cups of Deceit, in which I wrote:
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. 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 ... Moreover, Mortenson’s charity ... has issued fraudulent financial statements, and he has misused millions of dollars donated by schoolchildren and other trusting devotees. “Greg,” says a former treasurer of the organization’s board of directors, “regards CAI as his personal ATM” ...
Greg Mortenson has done much that is admirable since he began working in Baltistan sixteen and a half years ago. He’s been a tireless advocate for girls’ education. He’s established dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that have benefited tens of thousands of children, a significant percentage of them girls. A huge number of people regard him as a hero, and he inspires tremendous trust. It is now evident, however, that Mortenson recklessly betrayed this trust, damaging his credibility beyond repair.
Because Mortenson resides in Bozeman, Montana, and the headquarters of his charity are also based there, the allegations made by 60 Minutes and me attracted the attention of Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock. Two days after the 60 Minutes broadcast, Bullock announced that his office was launching an inquiry into Mortenson and CAI, explaining, “We have a responsibility to make sure charitable assets are used for their intended purposes.”
Bullock’s investigation, completed in April 2012, uncovered numerous “financial transgressions” and “serious internal problems in the management of CAI.” The attorney general ordered Mortenson to pay CAI more than $1 million as restitution and forbade him from serving as a voting member of the CAI board of directors or holding any position at the charity “requiring financial oversight.” To avoid being sued by the state of Montana, Mortenson and CAI signed a settlement agreement and assurance of voluntary compliance with Bullock that required CAI to expand its board from three members to at least seven and to hire a new executive director to replace Anne Beyersdorfer, a longtime friend of the Mortenson family who had been serving as executive director since Mortenson took a paid leave of absence shortly after 60 Minutes aired.
A Washington, D.C.–based public-relations specialist with no firsthand experience in Central Asia or in the field of international development, Beyersdorfer had formerly worked on the political campaigns of Republican presidential and Senate candidates and had served as a media consultant to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. From her first day on the job, Beyersdorfer’s tenure at CAI was characterized by frequent public statements pledging her commitment to “full transparency,” while simultaneously doing everything in her power to keep Mortenson’s misdeeds hidden from journalists, donors, and the public.
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Two years have now passed since the Mortenson scandal erupted. The CAI board has been overhauled, and a new executive director with seemingly solid credentials took over from Beyersdorfer in March 2013. But Mortenson remains on the CAI payroll (his annual compensation is $182,220, according to the most recent financial information released by the charity), and he continues to exert considerable influence over its operations. He is still very much the public face of CAI, which doesn’t seem to be in the best interest of the charity or the people it serves in Pakistan and Afghanistan, given the many poor decisions Mortenson made and the disgrace he’s brought to the organization.
Mortenson apologists counter that his failings and misdeeds are in the past and should be forgiven. His intentions have always been good, they assert, and the misconduct identified by 60 Minutes, the Montana attorney general, and me was merely an unintentional side effect of the meteoric growth in CAI’s revenues generated by the publication of Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson proponents claim that he’s not dishonest, but merely disorganized.
The available evidence suggests otherwise. As the attorney general’s investigative report pointed out, even when Mortenson’s managerial failings were brought to his attention, he refused to correct them:
Based on the information obtained in this investigation, it is clear that Mortenson was not an effective manager of CAI. He, by his own admission, is not well-versed or comfortable in financial and personnel management issues. He did not communicate well with staff in the charity’s office in Bozeman ... It is doubtful that even a skilled manager could maintain the kind of travel and outreach schedule Mortenson maintained and still effectively manage an organization that has grown to the size of CAI. Yet, Mortenson consistently insisted on maintaining substantial control over the charity’s affairs. When employees challenged him by attempting to get him to provide documentation to substantiate expenditures, or otherwise to comply with sound management practices, he resisted and/or ignored them.
According to multiple sources, Mortenson routinely sabotaged the efforts of CAI staff to rectify the dysfunction and corruption they encountered. And this appears to be attributable, at least in part, to the fact that Mortenson had secrets he wanted to protect. As an ex-CAI employee told me, “Greg did not like people discovering things.”
Contrary to the assurances of supporters who insist that both Mortenson and CAI have cleaned up their acts, an audit of the charity’s overseas activities by a Pakistani accounting firm, as well as information provided by other sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan, indicate that CAI’s foreign operations are currently beset by widespread corruption. Thanks to appallingly lax oversight that began while Mortenson was at the helm and continued during Beyersdorfer’s two-year tenure, many hundreds of thousands of dollars—perhaps millions—appear to have been wasted or pilfered by some of the charity’s Afghan and Pakistani staff.
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In his two bestselling memoirs, Mortenson frequently sings the praises of his handpicked team of foreign employees. In Stones Into Schools, the sequel to Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson says of his staff,
I often refer to this group as the Dirty Dozen because so many of them are renegades and misfits—men of unrecognized talents who struggled for years to find their place and whose former employers greeted much of their energy and enthusiasm with indifference or condescension. But inside the loose and seemingly disorganized structure of the CAI, they have found a way to harness their untapped resourcefulness and make a difference in their communities.
Problem is, several of the Dirty Dozen harnessed their “untapped resourcefulness” to loot a mountain of money from CAI. Siphoning funds was ridiculously easy, because nobody from CAI’s American office was monitoring how its funds were spent. As a source who used to work for CAI explained, “Greg was accountable to no one, and the staff overseas were accountable to only Greg, but he never held them accountable to anything. Ever. He never checked their books, never asked for receipts.”
The overseas audit was conducted by a respected Pakistani accounting firm, HLB Ijaz Tabussum & Co., in the spring and summer of 2012. Although I haven’t seen the entire HLB Ijaz report, significant portions of it (along with numerous corroborating documents) were sent to me by Pakistanis with close ties to CAI who are frustrated by Mortenson’s failure to take action against CAI program managers who appear to be misappropriating CAI funds. The most ambitious swindler exposed in the HLB Ijaz audit is Mortenson’s friend and confidant Lt. Col. Ilyas Ahmed Mirza, a retired Pakistani Army aviation officer who appears in the pages of Three Cups of Tea:
Ilyas was tall and dashing in the way Hollywood imagines its heroes. His black hair silvered precisely at the temples of his chiseled face. Otherwise he looked much like he had as young man, when he served as one of his country’s finest combat pilots. Ilyas was also a Wazir, from Bannu, the settlement Mortenson had passed through just before his kidnapping, and the colonel’s knowledge of how Mortenson had been treated by his tribe at first made him determined to see that no further harm befell his American friend.
In late 2009 or early 2010, Mortenson hired Ilyas to be CAI’s “Pakistan chief operations director,” a position for which he presently receives an annual salary of $42,000, a very generous compensation in Pakistan. To carry out CAI’s work, Mortenson asked Ilyas to create a stand-alone Pakistani entity, christened the Central Asia Institute Trust, which Ilyas registered in Islamabad in November 2010. But it appears that the trust may well have been structured to enable Ilyas to help himself to donated money.
Ilyas and his wife, Talat, are the sole trustees, giving them complete control of the trust and all CAI funds that pass through it. According to the HLB Ijaz auditors, “Separate bank accounts for the funds of CAI-USA [i.e., money sent from CAI’s American headquarters] are not being maintained. [Funds from CAI-USA] are directly transferred in personal account of Chief Operations Director [Ilyas]. Non-maintenance of separate bank accounts implies weakness of controls that may result in embezzlement of funds.” Indeed, on November 10, 2010—just two weeks after the Trust was created—Ilyas paid himself a $50,000 “hiring bonus.”
Below is a partial list of the irregularities reported by HLB Ijaz auditors and other sources:
• Before the trust was established, Ilyas sold a lavish Islamabad home purchased with CAI funds for 47 million Pakistani rupees (approximately $486,000), and all the money from this sale was deposited in Ilyas’s personal bank account. Ilyas refused to provide auditors with any documents related to the sale of this home.
• On September 30, 2011, Ilyas redeemed a CAI certificate of deposit for $42,000 in cash, which, according to the trust accountant, he used for personal expenses.
• An invoice from a Pakistani air charter company called Princely Jets shows that on January 16 and 17, 2012, the trust spent $14,210 to charter a private jet to fly Ilyas from Islamabad to Bannu and back. On January 17, other invoices show that the Trust spent an additional $14,532 on two separate round-trip helicopter flights between Islamabad and Bannu. The helicopters were hired from Askari Aviation—a helicopter charter company in which Ilyas has had a longstanding business interest. The trust, in other words, inexplicably spent $28,742 on three separate charter flights between Islamabad and Bannu in the same two-day time period.
• According to the HLB Ijaz report, “Contracts for the construction of colleges and schools were awarded [by Ilyas] without following any open bidding process, thus the opportunities of most economical constructions have not been availed.”
• The trust pays Ilyas’s brother Idrees a salary of $48,000 per year to travel from Islamabad to Bannu once a month to “supervise” construction of a $700,000 library at the University of Science and Technology, the single most expensive project CAI has ever undertaken. The trust also pays the salaries of several of Ilyas’s cousins and business associates to work at the UST library project, even though they appear to do little actual work.
• The trust pays the salary of a cook, Nadeem, at Ilyas’s personal residence, and the salaries of four drivers—Javaid, Rauf, Mushtaq, and Shakeel—to chauffeur Ilyas, his wife, and his daughter around Pakistan in three vehicles purchased with CAI funds. Two of the vehicles are registered in the name of the CAI Pakistan Trust; one is registered in Ilyas’s name.
According to a prominent, frequently cited statement on the CAI website,
Each one of Central Asia Institute’s projects is locally initiated and involves community participation. A committee of elders guides each selected project. Before a project starts, the community matches project funds with equal amounts of local resources and labor.
But this statement is contradicted by the way CAI actually conducts its business. According to the HLB Ijaz auditors’ report, “Selection of projects is at the sole discretion of Chief Operations Director [Ilyas] which raises the risks associated with lack of segregation of duty. There are no selection criteria ... either for the selection of place for construction of schools/college or for providing support for it. Also the effectiveness of the projects is not measurable before or after the implementation.” The audit leaves no doubt that most, if not all, of the projects under the purview of Ilyas were implemented at his whim without community input, often with the primary aim of providing financial benefits to Ilyas, his relatives, and/or his friends.
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Transparency is a crucial component of honesty. The leaders of any charity—the executive director and the board of directors—determine the ethical culture of the entire organization, largely by the example of their own conduct. CAI’s insistence on keeping the HLB Ijaz audit hidden from the charity’s donors is therefore alarming. Over the past five months, I made multiple entreaties to Beyersdorfer and the new chairman of the CAI board of directors, Steve Barrett, to post the audit on the CAI website in accordance with their public statements proclaiming their commitment to transparency, but they ignored all my requests.
No less disturbing is the way Beyersdorfer and Barrett treated Farhan Jamal Akhtar, the 28-year-old Pakistani finance manager for the CAI Trust who courageously reported to the HLB Ijaz auditors that Ilyas was enriching himself from the trust. Ilyas hired Farhan in February 2011, and two months later, when Ilyas showed Farhan the trust deed for the first time, Farhan immediately understood that his boss was unscrupulous. By then it was too late for Farhan to get his old job back, however. “So I kept on working,” he explained to me, “hoping that one day Greg will meet with me and I will be able to tell him everything.”
In the spring of 2012, CAI’s Montana-based operations director, Jennifer Sipes, asked HLB Ijaz to meet with Farhan to examine the trust’s financial records, because Ilyas was in California visiting his son at the time. When Farhan agreed to show the books to the auditors, Beyersdorfer expressed her gratitude in an email:
Salaam and thank you ... Ijaz, Pakistan accountants, are reviewing accounting records for money received from CAI-USA during Fiscal Year October 1, 2010 through September 30, 2011 ... Pakistan accountants are not performing full audit, they are reviewing records for CAI’s USA-side auditors. Please let us know any questions or concerns at any time. Many thanks again for your good work, I know your records are very, very good. All my best ... Anne
But Sipes inadvertently forwarded an email she’d received from Farhan to Ilyas, and when Ilyas realized that Farhan was communicating with Sipes and Beyersdorfer about the audit, Ilyas became apoplectic and threatened to fire Farhan if Farhan had any further contact with CAI’s American staff.
Before Ilyas had traveled to the U.S., he’d confiscated Farhan’s computer and locked it in his office in the hope of keeping the auditors from seeing the trust’s complete financial records and ordered Farhan to show them nothing but a fraudulent summary of the books. In an email sent from California, Ilyas made it very clear to Farhan that he should lie to both the auditors and CAI’s American staff, saying, “You don’t need to be honest with CAI-Bozeman. You only need to be honest with me.” Then Ilyas ordered his brother Idrees to sit in on the audit to ensure that Farhan did not disclose incriminating information to the auditors.
But Farhan disclosed everything, providing the auditors with backup files he’d made of the records on the computer Ilyas had confiscated, because Farhan believed it was his duty. Had he not done so, it’s unlikely that Ilyas’s wrongdoing would have been discovered.
Farhan—who supports a wife, a 2-year-old son, and a father whose health is failing—was nevertheless terrified of losing his job when Ilyas discovered what he’d done. So on June 15, 2012, he sent a confidential email to Beyersdorfer begging her to protect him:
now madam tell me what i can do? how can i secure my job ... how can i secure my family future ... Madam i am waiting for your reply but again madam please keep secret my mail and don’t share or forward to anyone it is like firing me from job i hope you can understand.
On October 4, 2012, upon realizing that Farhan had spilled the beans, Ilyas walked into Farhan’s office in a rage, fired him, and sent an email to Mortenson and Beyersdorfer claiming that Farhan had quit. Two months later Ilyas filed a lawsuit
against Farhan in Islamabad, charging him with defamation and seeking 10 million rupees in damages. When Beyersdorfer learned of the lawsuit, she sent Ilyas an email letting him know that she and the CAI board supported him, and they had arranged for an excellent lawyer to represent him in Islamabad. She closed her note, “Again, many thanks for your work.”
Ilyas continues to insist he has done nothing that violates the terms of the trust deed or the powers assigned to him in a letter Mortenson sent in January 2011 attesting that “Ilyas Mirza has been appointed by the ... CAI Board of Directors as the CAI CEO in Pakistan.”
Presently Ilyas is still receiving his salary, continues to run the CAI Trust, continues to be listed on the CAI website as a key member of the CAI team, and still seems to have the enthusiastic support of Mortenson and the CAI board, despite financial records that show Ilyas was misusing CAI funds.
And Farhan’s reward for blowing the whistle on Ilyas? Farhan was thrown under the bus, as if he, rather than Ilyas, had been the one who’d been ripping off CAI donors. Broke and unemployed, Farhan was abandoned by Mortenson, Beyersdorfer, and the CAI board to face Ilyas’s lawsuit alone. Although the defamation claim against Farhan appears to be baseless, Farhan was forced to sell his father’s property to pay an attorney to defend him against the lawsuit presently wending its way through the Pakistani courts. “App ka dua go,” Farhan recently implored of me in his native Urdu: “Pray for me.”
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The problem of CAI employees pilfering donated CAI funds isn’t limited to the charity’s overseas staff. Upon examining CAI’s credit-card statements for eight sample months from 2001 through 2010, the Montana attorney general determined that
CAI provided receipts for just 38 percent of the total charges ... [For many of the receipts] there was no voucher or other written indication of the purpose of the charge. Mortenson, in particular, consistently failed to comply with either commonly accepted business practices or CAI’s policy manual with respect to documenting expenses charged on CAI’s accounts ... Board members testified that despite requests, cajoling, demands and admonitions, they were unsuccessful in getting Mortenson to submit proper documentation to support the charges he was making to the charity ...
The more significant issue was ... the nature and magnitude of charges for which inadequate documentation exists. Through the years, Mortenson charged substantial personal expenses to CAI. These include expenses for such things as LL Bean clothing, iTunes, luggage, luxurious accommodations, and even vacations ... $75,276.10 [was] the amount of company funds that CAI auditors determined Mortenson used for personal reasons [in 2010 alone] ... Based on our investigation, it appears likely that there are personal charges for Mortenson and his family from other years, which properly should be paid back to CAI.
Mortenson apologists have tried to explain away his personal use of donated funds as an innocent oversight, a byproduct of the turmoil generated by CAI’s spectacular growth. But that dog won’t hunt. And the surge in CAI revenues wasn’t an unforeseen accident that took Mortenson and his board by surprise. It was part of a deliberate plan. Following the publication of Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson went to extraordinary lengths and spent a colossal amount of donated money to promote himself and his book. According to the attorney general’s report, from 2006 through 2011, CAI, a nonprofit charity, spent approximately $5 million to advertise Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools and another $4 million buying copies of the books to give away, even though the charity didn’t receive a nickel of the royalties from Mortenson’s books.
During the years in question, CAI also spent approximately $2 million flying Mortenson on private jets to over 150 paid speaking engagements. When members of the public noticed Mortenson traveling on chartered jets, he would lie to them, telling them the aircraft had been provided free of charge by the CEO of Costco or some other imaginary benefactor.
Moreover, CAI received no portion of the huge fees Mortenson was paid for many of these lecture gigs. A speakers’ bureau owned by Mortenson’s publisher, the Penguin Group, charged as much as $30,000 per event, plus travel expenses. Penguin kept $7,500 as it’s booking fee and paid the rest to Mortenson: $22,500 plus several thousand dollars to cover Mortenson’s flights, meals, and accommodations—expenses which Mortenson also billed to CAI. As the attorney general’s report described the scam, “Thus, Mortenson was ‘double dipping,’ His travel expenses were, in many cases, paid twice: by both CAI and event sponsors.”
CAI points to the $70 million in donations it received from 2006 through 2011 to justify the $11 million the charity spent promoting Mortenson and his books. But this argument fails to consider that Mortenson’s publisher, the Penguin Group, received a similarly large, if not larger, windfall from book sales generated by the CAI advertising campaign. Penguin let CAI pay for those expensive ads, even though the cost of promoting a book or an author is properly borne by the book’s publisher or the author himself, not a charity’s tax-subsidized revenues. It’s unconscionable that Mortenson and his board of directors allowed Penguin to take a free ride on the backs of CAI donors. To add insult to injury, the books Penguin foisted on the public with CAI’s advertising dollars were larded with lies.
One should also bear in mind that it wasn’t only CAI and Penguin who hit the jackpot thanks to, among other things, what turned out to be a deceitful marketing campaign funded by unsuspecting CAI donors. Mortenson got rich, as well. We don’t know how rich, because Mortenson’s lawyers waged an expensive and ultimately successful battle to prevent the attorney general from divulging what his investigation uncovered about Mortenson’s personal finances. In a grimly ironic twist, CAI donors thus paid for Mortenson’s lawyers to keep them from discovering how much Mortenson has enriched himself at their expense. And make no mistake: CAI donors have paid Mortenson’s lawyers astronomical sums over the past two years and will probably be on the hook for even larger legal bills in the years ahead.
In the fiscal year ending September 30, 2010 (i.e., before the 60 Minutes exposé), CAI spent just $28,170 on attorney’s fees. Between December 1, 2010, and December 1, 2011, by comparison, it spent more than $1.7 million on attorney’s fees and other costs associated with two legal disputes arising from Mortenson’s lies and self-dealing: the Montana attorney general’s investigation and a class-action lawsuit over the fabrications in Mortenson’s books. (CAI likely spent even more on attorneys’ fees in 2012, but I haven’t yet been able to ascertain the amount.) Although the suit was dismissed in April 2012, it was immediately appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where it’s currently being deliberated. The charity’s legal expenses are so high because the CAI board of directors retained four legal firms to represent Mortenson and the charity, including a San Francisco firm that billed CAI at rates as high as $1,105 per hour and a Washington, D.C., firm that billed as much as $645 per hour.
Although Mortenson’s attorneys have tried to keep the details of his legal woes under tight wraps, some information has emerged from routine court filings, as well as from confidential documents sent to me by sources. One such document was a memo bearing the letterhead of a Kansas City, Missouri, law firm, Copilevitz & Canter, dated January 3, 2011. After examining CAI’s 2009 tax return, the most recent that was available at the time, an attorney at Copilevitz warned Mortenson and the CAI board that the huge sums the charity had spent to advertise Mortenson’s books and fly him around the country in private jets were in apparent violation of Section 4859 of the Internal Revenue Code, which prohibits board members and executive officers of a public charity from receiving “an excessive economic benefit” from the charity:
Assuming he receives revenue from the sale of his books and $30,000 for each speaking engagement, including a $3,000 fee for travel and lodging, as well as expenses paid by CAI, Mr. Mortenson receives a financial benefit. Because the charity receives no [direct] share of the financial benefit resulting from its advertising and travel expenses for Mr. Mortenson’s book sales, Mr. Mortenson will likely be viewed as being the beneficiary of an excess benefit from these transactions ... Thus, the IRS would require Mr. Mortenson to “correct” the transaction by repaying the $2,421,152.71 benefit he received in 2009, plus interest. Further, assuming Mr. Mortenson received the same or similar excess benefit for the previous two years ... Mr. Mortenson could owe CAI up to $7,263,458.13 for excessive benefits received ... In short, if Mr. Mortenson fails to timely pay the correction amount, he could face a total liability ranging from $7,868,746.31 (correction amount + 25% tax + 200% tax for 2009 transaction only) to $23,606,238.62 (correction amount for three years of excess benefits + 25% tax on those benefits + 200% tax on same).
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When arguing that Mortenson’s wrongdoing should be forgiven, his supporters have pointed out that were it not for his efforts, thousands of children in Pakistan and Afghanistan wouldn’t have received an education. This is a compelling argument. Indeed, had Mortenson owned up to his mistakes and expressed remorse after the scandal broke in April 2011, I would have been among the first to forgive him.
It’s hard to pardon someone, however, who maintains that he has done nothing wrong. Mortenson’s irresponsible management of CAI has not merely wasted millions of dollars contributed by trusting donors. It’s also done incalculable damage to important CAI programs and the people they were supposed to help.
Yes, Mortenson has admitted, through spokespeople, that he is not perfect and “mistakes were made.” But thus far Mortenson has failed to personally acknowledge, let alone apologize for, the shocking amount of money he misappropriated from the charity—well over a million dollars that had been donated to educate needy youngsters. And the problem goes well beyond the donated funds Mortenson used to enrich himself. No less troubling are the donated funds he’s apparently allowed others to loot or squander through his willfully negligent management, the exaggerated claims he’s made about the effectiveness of CAI’s accomplishments, and the self-aggrandizing fabrications in his books. Mortenson refuses to accept responsibility for any of these transgressions. Instead, he has portrayed himself as the victim of a witch hunt.
This is unfortunate. As Jonah Lehrer, another author who knows something about duplicity, recently explained, “If we are not prepared to deal with our mistakes—if we try to hide them away, as I did—then even minor errors can become catastrophes.”
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Kevin Starr is a physician who serves as managing director of the Mulago Foundation, a charity “focused on health, poverty, and conservation in the world’s poorest places.” While working in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor in 2008, Starr encountered some empty schools built by CAI and asked people who lived nearby why the buildings were empty. Their replies inspired him to write the following in a 2011 blog post:
[L]ocal villagers portrayed Greg and CAI as cowboys who parachuted in and didn’t listen. Now they had schools in the wrong places and no one to teach the kids ... People seem most outraged by the apparent fabrications in [Three Cups of Tea] ... but the real crime is that CAI appears to have raised 60 million dollars and doesn’t have that much to show for it. No one really knows how many schools are actually up and running. CAI says 170; my own tiny random sample and the 60 Minutes investigation indicate that there are probably a lot less. Even if you allow for a generous figure of 150, that represents $400,000 of donor money per school. That’s ridiculous ... The Agha Khan Development Network built 280 schools in a small corner of the same region and achieved more than 95% female literacy—for a fraction of the cost. The argument about what’s fabricated and what’s not will rage on for a while, but what we really should be asking is how did CAI spend so much to accomplish so little and why did people keep giving Greg money ... Nicholas Kristof and others offer the classic noble-visionary-as-poor-manager defense, portraying Mortenson as a flawed hero who nonetheless accomplished great things. He didn’t ... “Creating awareness” is not the same as creating impact, and it too easily becomes a black hole that seems to justify almost any expenditure.
Starr suggests that Mortenson’s mendacious representations of what CAI has accomplished are more serious cause for concern than the whoppers in his books about being kidnapped by the Taliban or climbing Himalayan peaks that he never actually set foot on. But all these falsehoods are of a piece. Each reflects Mortenson’s inveterate dishonesty.
Concerning his books, Mortenson continues to insist they are truthful accounts, despite ample evidence to the contrary. On April 16, 2011, a day after 60 Minutes announced in a press release that “some of the most inspiring and dramatic stories in … Three Cups of Tea are not true,” Viking (the imprint of the Penguin Group that published Mortenson’s books) issued a statement declaring that it relied on its authors “to tell the truth, and they are contractually obligated to do so.” On April 18, a day after the 60 Minutes exposé was broadcast, Viking pledged in another statement that “60 Minutes is a serious news organization and in the wake of their report, Viking plans to carefully review the materials with the author.”
A month after Viking made these statements, I wrote to the editor of Mortenson’s books, Paul Slovak, to ask “why Viking has said nothing further about the significant falsehoods presented as fact in both of Mortenson’s books.”
Two days later I received a reply from Viking’s director of publicity, Carolyn Coleburn, who replied, “When Mortenson is recovered [he was suffering from health problems at the time] we will address any changes he feels need to be made.”
Two years down the road, neither Viking nor any other Penguin imprint has said anything more about the fabrications in Mortenson’s books or made further mention of its authors’ obligations to be truthful. Notably, legal briefs filed by attorneys defending Mortenson and Penguin in the class-action lawsuit over the veracity of his books do not claim that his books are factual accounts. Instead, these lawyers argue that the suit should be dismissed on constitutional grounds because “all of Penguin’s alleged conduct is protected by the First Amendment,” and therefore “Penguin owed no duty to publish accurate information.”
Even though Penguin’s lawyers have declined to assert that Mortenson’s books are truthful, Penguin continues to advertise and sell Mortenson’s books as nonfiction. Three Cups of Tea no longer appears on the New York Times bestseller list, but it continues to sell briskly. Thanks to the curriculum still being promoted through CAI’s Pennies for Peace program, thousands of students are required to read the book every year in schools across North America.
The Pennies for Peace Resource Guide for grades nine to 12 directs teachers to have students write an expository essay titled “Hero’s Journey,” in which they compare “Mortenson’s journey in Three Cups of Tea with that of [a] hero from a specific work of fiction or mythology. For example, how does Mortenson’s journey compare to that of Hercules?” An edition for young readers, Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg & Three Cups of Tea, is assigned to teach students the difference between fiction and nonfiction. The Pennies for Peace Resource Guide for grades kindergarten through four urges teachers, “Tell students this is a true story (nonfiction) that takes place in a village called Korphe.”
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I met Greg Mortenson for the first time in 1997. I was impressed by his apparent sincerity, his humility, and his determination to build schools for the illiterate inhabitants of northern Pakistan. I was deeply moved when he told me that it had all begun with a promise he’d made to the residents of Korphe after he’d accidentally wandered into their village, exhausted and lost, while descending from K2 in 1993. Over the next several years, during a period when CAI was teetering on the brink of insolvency, I donated more than $75,000 to Greg. In 2001 I was asked to give the opening remarks before Greg’s appearance at a sold-out fundraiser in Seattle’s Town Hall. I concluded my introduction by telling the audience, “What Greg has accomplished, with very little money, verges on the miraculous.”
Then, in early 2004, I learned Mortenson was misusing CAI funds. Crushed by this betrayal of trust, I faxed a letter to his office in which I lamented,
I have decided to suspend my financial support of CAI for the indefinite future. I didn’t make this decision lightly. After interviewing several of the people who recently left the board of directors I lost confidence in Greg’s accountability. I feel that I cannot continue to give such large sums of money (they seem large to me, at any rate) to an organization run with so little oversight and such lax accounting practices. It is possible that I may decide to support CAI again at some future date. But not until CAI has installed a strong, active board of directors who keep close tabs on how the organization is run. Make no mistake: I still believe in CAI’s mission, but I am made extremely uneasy by Greg’s way of running the show. Although I don’t want to make any public statements that would have a negative impact on Greg’s work, I no longer feel comfortable providing financial backing, or lending my name, to CAI.
With that, I walked away from both Mortenson and CAI. In the spring of 2010, though, I finally brought myself to read Three Cups of Tea. By the time I’d finished the book, my internal bullshit detector had redlined, prompting me to contact several of Greg’s associates to get their perspective on what was going on at CAI.
I had taken for granted that CAI, having received the disquieting message I’d delivered six years earlier, would have fixed what was clearly broken. I discovered instead that the charity’s problems had grown worse by an order of magnitude. Greg had culled his board of directors down to four individuals, and then three, until the entire board consisted of himself and two submissive acolytes he could steamroll or ignore. With nobody left to hold him accountable, it appeared as though Greg had been stricken with a virulent strain of megalomania, leading him to believe he was exempt from the ethical codes that guide the behavior of ordinary mortals and other charities. He seemed to think he could lie about almost anything and get away with it.
Ashamed that I had helped persuade many thousands of people to give their hard-earned money to a charlatan, and had done nothing more to correct my blunder than write a letter to CAI, I launched an exhaustive investigation of the charity to make amends. As my investigation gathered momentum, and I came to understand just how dysfunctional the organization had become, I resolved to do my utmost to inform donors about the gravity of CAI’s predicament and to stay on the case until things were back on track.
Transforming CAI’s corrupt institutional culture is going to be a long, hard process. And such a transformation will be impossible unless the charity’s refurbished board of directors stops trying to sweep CAI’s problems under the rug, and—working in concert with David Starnes, the newly appointed executive director—start being honest with the charity’s donors. In the meantime, anyone thinking about donating to CAI should probably reconsider until they see persuasive evidence that the misdeeds of the Mortenson era are being openly addressed. Posting the complete 2012 audit of CAI’s overseas operations on the CAI website would be an encouraging first step in that direction. Severing the organization’s relationship with Greg Mortenson and Col. Ilyas Mirza would be an excellent second and third.