Greg Mortenson
Greg Mortenson talks with his friend and supporter Mehdi Ali in the lobby of the Indus Hotel in Skardu, Pakistan, in 2007.

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Greg Mortenson, who became Bozeman's hometown hero for his inspiring work building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, vowed Sunday to continue his work despite a highly critical "60 Minutes" investigation, and then on Monday was targeted by an even more scathing Jon Krakauer article entitled "Three Cups of Deceit."

Krakauer, author of "Into Thin Air," charged that Mortenson has made millions of dollars from his speaking tours promoting "Three Cups of Tea" and other best-selling books, that his books are "full of lies" designed to inflate the myth of Greg Mortenson, and that because of dysfunctional management, many of the schools started by his charity Central Asia Institute have become empty "ghost schools."

Krakauer concluded that while Mortenson has been a tireless advocate for girls' education and established dozens of schools that benefitted tens of thousands of children, he has "recklessly betrayed" the public's trust, "damaging his credibility beyond repair," and that the only way to salvage CAI would be for it to sever ties with Mortenson.

Attempts Monday evening to reach Mortenson for comment on Krakauer's allegations were unsuccessful.

Over the weekend, Mortenson and the Bozeman-based Central Asia Institute mounted a vigorous defense against Sunday's "60 Minutes" report, issuing written statements and giving interviews to Outside Magazine.

"But we're in this for the long haul," Mortenson told Alex Heard, Outside Magazine's editorial director, "and what I'd ask supporters of CAI to remember is that we're still completely committed to what really matters: building schools for kids in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Viking Press, Mortenson's Penguin Group-owned publisher, issued a statement Monday, saying, "Greg Mortenson's work as a humanitarian in Afghanistan and Pakistan has provided tens of thousands of children with an education. ‘60 Minutes' is a serious news organization and in the wake of their report, Viking plans to carefully review the materials with the author."

The allegations prompted strong reactions from readers across the country. In written comments posted on websites of the Bozeman Chronicle, New York Times, Outside and elsewhere, reactions ranged from condemnations of "60 Minutes" for a "hatchet job" that damaged a good-hearted man fighting for a worthy cause, to others that questioned whether Mortenson has been lying and defrauding the public.

In the Outside Magazine article, which can be read at outsideonline.com, Mortenson defended the "Three Cups of Tea" story of how he first came to promise to build his first school in the village of Korphe, Pakistan, as based on true events, though he conceded literary license had been taken by condensing multiple visits into one.

He told Outside that in 1993 he stumbled exhausted into Korphe after failing to climb K2, the world's second highest peak, had tea with a village elder and spent two or three hours there, before leaving to rejoin his climbing party. It wasn't until a year later, he admitted, that he promised to build a school. In the book, he described spending a much longer time recovering his health in Korphe and making his promise.

Krakauer, however, charged that Mortenson originally was trying to build a school at another village entirely, Khane, and quotes from Mortenson's first 1994 plea for funds in the American Himalayan Foundation newsletter. He charges that when Mortenson switched to Korphe, he was breaking his promise to Khane.

In his 71-page article, published online at www.byliner.com, Krakauer charged that Mortenson's spending of CAI money is "accountable to no one." Krakauer alleged that the pennies donated by U.S. schoolchildren to CAI's Pennies For Peace program haven't all been spent on supporting overseas schools, as promised.

Krakauer quoted Gordon Wiltsie of Bozeman, the respected photographer for National Geographic and former CAI treasurer, as saying, "'Greg regards CAI as his personal ATM.'" Wiltsie resigned from CAI in 2002.

The three-member CAI board, of which Mortenson is one member, issued a statement Saturday saying though it receives no money from Mortenson's book royalties or speaking tours, "Greg has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars" and "worked for the organization without compensation for a number of years."

Krakauer charged Mortenson has been paid at least a $21,792 stipend every year since 1995 from the AHI Hoerni/Pakistan Fund; that Mortenson charged $100,000 on CAI credit cards without providing any receipts; that he spent millions in CAI funds on chartered jets and advertisements for his books; and received a $700,000 advance for his second book.

Krakauer also charged Mortenson has earned millions from 60 paid speaking events a year. Krakauer conceded Mortenson does give many talks for free, without charging his average $30,000 fee.

Those free talks include the 2007 speech to Montana State University's first Freshman Convocation and the 2009 all-day lectures to Bozeman public school students and community members at the MSU Fieldhouse, organizers of those events said Monday.

"He was captivating and it was terrific," said Greg Young, vice provost of undergraduate education at MSU, who organized the Freshman Convocation.

Young said news stories about the allegations didn't seem to consider "the whole picture."

"He's been working tirelessly, putting himself in danger. It seemed like a witch hunt," Young said.

Mortenson told Outside that when a law firm raised concerns about CAI finances, he personally paid for a second law firm to do an analysis, and since mid-January, he has started paying for all his own travel. He said the experts found that he, the books and the charity are all "intricately woven. They said CAI needs me, and I'm really the only reason CAI can exist right now."

The experts concluded that "we've done nothing wrong," Mortenson said, but they've recommended greater separation between him and the charity. He promised to release the report soon.

Mortenson also said that since December 2010, when CAI raised $8 million in donations, he has cut back on advertising and book purchases by 80 percent and removed his name and books from the CAI website. Since then, donations have decreased dramatically, so that instead of expecting to increase donations from last year's $23 million, he now expects them to fall to $15 million.

CAI will have to become "a more bureaucratic organization," Mortenson said, "that can go on without me in the near future."

Asked by Outside what he would say to the millions of people who are unsure whether to believe in him and CAI, Mortenson said he took responsibility, that he wasn't a good manager, but was making changes.

"This whole experience has taught me to be even more humble, and to slow down and delegate," he said.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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