Hometown defends 'Cups of Tea' author
Charges by author Jon Krakauer and "60 Minutes" that Greg Mortenson's institute had spent millions of dollars on overhead and private jet flights rocked the publishing and charity worlds, but in Bozeman there a substantial inclination to credit him for good works.
Los Angeles Times
BOZEMAN, Mont. — Greg Mortenson drew a crowd of 5,100 students from the public schools here in 2009 for one of his energetic talks on how he built schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan as an antidote to the Taliban.
The students, for whom Mortenson's best-selling narrative about his exploits, "Three Cups of Tea," was required reading that year, literally passed the bucket in their classrooms and raised more than $4,900 for his school-building philanthropy, the Central Asia Institute.
Then came allegations by author Jon Krakauer and the CBS news program "60 Minutes" that the institute had spent millions of dollars on overhead and flying Mortenson on private jets to film festivals and other promotional activities. In addition, they presented evidence that the fundamental narrative in "Three Cups of Tea" — in which Mortenson recounts recuperating in the Pakistani village of Korphe from a failed climb of the K2 peak in 1993 and deciding to build his first school in the village, and being kidnapped by the Taliban — didn't happen the way he said it did.
The charges rocked the publishing and charity worlds, but here in Bozeman, where Mortenson's internationally known institute has helped put the small university town on the map, there is both disappointment and yet a substantial inclination to credit Mortenson for the more than 170 schools he has built in a part of the world where even the U.S. government has found school-building a formidable challenge.
"He seemed like a good guy, and everything was fine. Later on, we find out the money was used for a lot of other things, and he didn't do all the things he claimed in the book, and that was kind of disappointing," said Kasey Kimball, one of the students at the 2009 talk. "But I personally am not too upset. I think his heart was in the right place."
Ariana Paliobagis, owner of the Country Bookshelf bookstore in Bozeman's upscale, Old West-style downtown, where Mortenson book signings have been a regular event, said, "All of my interactions with Greg have just shown him to be a hard-working person, throwing himself into this work with everything that he has."
If facts were rearranged, she said, "that bothers me very, very little, just being a person of books, and knowing the way that those kinds of stories get told. ... You have his co-writer, and an editor, and so many people saying, 'Make a book that sells, make a book that's exciting' — I think that sort of thing happens all the time."
Friends of Mortenson here say they are not shocked if the chronically disorganized but notoriously hard-working philanthropist did not appear to devote much effort to strictly accounting for the millions of dollars that flowed through his charity.
Nor, they say, is it overly important that speaker fees and proceeds from Mortenson's best-selling book, co-written with author David Oliver Relin, went into his own pocket, even as his institute was paying his promotional bills.
"He's just a unique individual that possesses a true passion for what he found to be his life calling, and that was to give ... girls in one of the most voiceless areas of the world a chance at an education. There was an amazing amount of dedication and self-sacrifice that keeps getting lost in this controversy," said Chris Naumann, a friend and fellow mountain climber.
Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock has launched an inquiry to determine whether any laws were broken. "We have a responsibility to make sure charitable assets are used for their intended purposes," Bullock said in a statement.
A confidential legal memo prepared for the institute in January, quoted by Krakauer, concluded that under federal tax law Mortenson theoretically could owe his institute up to $2.4 million in "excessive benefits" paid for book advertising and travel expenses in 2009 alone. That amount could reach $7.3 million if there was a similar pattern in 2007 and 2008, the memo said.
Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, which first reported concerns about Mortenson's charity in April 2010, said that under federal tax law Mortenson "at minimum" should reimburse costs the charity incurred to promote "Three Cups of Tea" and a follow-up book.
"Certainly there's an argument that it's OK because he has done some good. But every charity, no matter how bad it is, does some good," Borochoff said.
"The fact is that the charity incurred millions of dollars in costs to create and promote his book, and they didn't receive any royalties. How wrong is that? If they think about these poor kids, and how they could have really used that help? Does he really need private jet travel, and $30,000 speaker fees?"
Mortenson has had little to say about the controversy. Immediately after publication last month of Krakauer's investigative report, "Three Cups of Deceit," Mortenson checked into a Bozeman hospital in preparation for heart surgery. Aides said the hospital lacked the necessary equipment, and he is now resting at his home, a spacious, upgraded bungalow in a modest residential neighborhood near downtown.
In the only interview he has given on the subject, Mortenson told Outside magazine there were "some omissions and compressions" in the name of "literary license" in his book, but he insisted the events described all happened.
"I think the character of the person that I know will be revealed," said Anne Beyersdorfer, a public relations consultant and longtime family friend of Mortenson's wife who has been named temporary director at the Central Asia Institute.
The institute has posted testimonials from dozens of people who have worked with Mortenson, including former board members, to counteract comments from other ex-board members who told Krakauer that they butted heads with Mortenson over his failure to provide detailed accounts of the money he spent.
Sitting amid stacks of documents in the modern, rustic wood-and-glass office that is the institute's headquarters, Beyersdorfer said the organization was working to compile requested financial reports for the attorney general, answer calls from donors and, once Mortenson's health returns, assemble a detailed review backing up the events recorded in "Three Cups" and its sequel, "Stones into Schools."
"We have staff over there (in Pakistan and Afghanistan) who have gone to the schools, taken pictures, gathered testimonials," she said.
When the final story is told, she said, it will show that Mortenson appeared at numerous speaking events for no fee, worked to make sure schools were built and told the substantial truth in his books about his work. The institute is no longer paying its founder's book-related travel expenses, she added, but said the board long ago approved the previous arrangement because of the large amount of donations it received out of Mortenson's speaking events.
"Good governance is always something that can be looked at and improved," Beyersdorfer said. "For people who are disheartened, we just hope for time to show the good work will continue."
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.