Public Challenges “Three Cups of Tea” Charitable Charlatan Greg Mortenson

June 27, 2011; Source: The Daily News | Remember Greg Mortenson whose stories about his mountain-climbing travails and rescue by Pakistani villagers helped create a lucrative “charity” for himself — until his “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones into Schools” bestsellers were revealed to contain huge pieces of whole-cloth fabrication? The problem with a charitable scam is that the scammer frequently lives on and collects money long after the news of his or her frauds gets revealed.

For example, the kids at the Walcott Street School in Le Roy, N.Y., had spent the past few months raising money for the “Pennies for Peace” program to help schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately, after raising $1,600, someone clued them in to the fact that “Pennies” was associated with Mortenson, who was under investigation for diverting money from his charities for himself. The  National Education Association, which like so many groups had officially lauded Mortenson, recommended that the Walcott kids find a different charity to help.

At the time he was exposed, Mortenson offered a defense, then went in for heart surgery, and has generally not been heard from in public since. His various websites are still up, including for his Central Asia Institute charity and others — www.gregmortenson.com, www.ikat.org, www.penniesforpeace.org, www.threecupsoftea.com, and www.stonesintoschools.com.  Somehow, investigations into this guy (the “60 Minutes” expose and the commentary written by author Jon Krakauer were compelling and believable) have been slow. 

Two Democratic legislators in Montana have filed a class action suit against Mortenson whose charity is based in Montana (CAI itself was dropped as a defendent in the lawsuit). In addition, a Lake County, Ill., teacher named Deborah Netter has filed a class action lawsuit against Mortenson “seeking compensation for all readers ‘who purchased ‘Three Cups of Tea’ and did not get what they paid for, but instead, were wrongly induced by each of the defendants to buy a phony and fictional story as opposed to the truth.'”

The problem is that the machinery of oversight and accountability moves quite slowly.  Even after the spurt of commentary, with plenty of evidence of actionable causes, Mortenson and his charities are still around. The cue for the public might be that Mortenson was a sloppy bookkeeper, but a good honest guy. While waiting for firm answers, people are still raising money for him. In Missoula, Mont., people collecting pennies for his charity expressed support along the lines of this schoolteacher’s comments:  “I honestly think Greg Mortenson is doing good work and truly believes in what he is doing. I don’t think this is a man who is trying to raise money in an illegal way and to pad his pocket – I do think he is doing this work for the good of mankind . . . If he can ride the storm and get good people under him to manage this organization, I think it will survive. To me, this is a wonderful project and the disappointing thing about this are the families with children who donated and felt a little jaded.”

If this isn’t a case for putting money into government examiners of nonprofits at the Internal Revenue Service and state attorneys general offices, we don’t know what would be.—Rick Cohen