A lawsuit brought against “Three Cups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson and his charity the Central Asia Institute over its administration was settled Thursday. According to the terms of the agreement, Mortenson will stay with the charity and has three years to pay it $1 million of his own money as compensation for using charitable funds to promote and buy his books.
The lawsuit was brought by authorities in Montana, where the Central Asia Institute is registered. The settlement will allow Mortenson’s charity to continue its work building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, albeit with major structural changes — and Mortenson’s repayment plan.
Mortenson has already paid back about half the funds, says Anne Beyersdorfer, the interim executive director. Mortenson stepped down as executive director and has left the board, but will remain an employee of the organization.
Mortenson made bestseller lists with “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones into Schools,” his tales of mountaineering and school building in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was a popular speaker who spent much of his time — and, it turned out, charitable funds — touring the country talking about his books and work.
According to the Montana Attorney General’s office, since 2006 the charity spent $4.9 million advertising Mortenson’s two books and $4 million buying copies of them to give away to schools and libraries.
The reports about possible improprieties was brought to light by writer Jon Krakauer in April 2011. Krakauer’s contentions about goings-on at the Central Asia Institute were broadcast on “60 Minutes” and caused a sensation. They were immediately followed by “Three Cups of Deceit,” a 75-page story by Krakauer that launched the Byliner original e-book shorts for the Kindle; it quickly became a bestseller in its own right. Krakauer, the author of “Into Thin Air” and other bestsellers, also questioned the veracity of some of Mortenson’s mountaineering stories. He visited remote locations where schools built by the charity stood empty, with no furniture or books.
The Central Asia Institute’s board was made up of just three people — Mortenson and two others. Boards of charities are meant to provide arms-length supervision of day-to-day activities, which the institute’s apparently did not. The two other board members are reportedly to depart within a year and be replaced by a seven-member board.
The arrangement that allows the Central Asia Institute to continue its mission of building schools in remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan is probably a wise one. Despite the controversy, readers who responded to Mortenson’s story voiced support for the author and his work. With more formal administration, that work may be done more effectively, so donors’ funds are put to best use.
– Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Greg Mortenson with Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the opening of Pushghar Village Girls School, 60 miles north of Kabul in Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, in 2009. Credit: Department of Defense / Associated Press
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