Greg Moretenson

Greg Moretenson sporting a traditional wool hat speaks to Bozeman's 3rd through 8th graders at the Brick Breeden Field House in this Nov., 2009 file photo. 

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In the scenes in his books, Greg Mortenson heals the injured, brings education to war-torn countries and rises against the odds to help the world. Children follow him in villages. The impoverished look to him for hope. Mortenson makes promises that he keeps, even if it takes years of relentless work.

In these pages, he almost seems a saint.

But the reputation of Bozeman’s hometown hero has fallen recently. The co-founder of the Central Asia Institute and co-author of the bestselling book, “Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson has seen his character and credibility come under attack since April, when “60 Minutes” aired an investigative report on Mortenson and the nonprofit.

“60 Minutes” alleged that Mortenson misused money and benefited excessively from the nonprofit, that CAI schools they’d visited overseas did not exist or were abandoned and that Mortenson had fabricated parts of his bestselling book.

The day after the “60 Minutes” report aired, author Jon Krakauer published a short online book, “Three Cups of Deceit.” The book alleged Mortenson was a habitual liar with an “insatiable hunger for esteem,” who in his first book “spun a long, fantastical yarn festooned with enthralling details.” News organizations all over the world followed the story. Montana legislators filed a lawsuit against Mortenson. The state’s attorney general launched an investigation.

Since then, the storm has calmed somewhat. Mortenson has fallen out of the daily news cycle. CAI was dropped from the lawsuit, though Mortenson was not. For now, everyone seems to be waiting on the attorney general’s inquiry – which could find that Mortenson and CAI spent all funds appropriately or that Mortenson benefited excessively and must repay potentially millions of dollars.

For CAI’s staff and board members, the waiting period has perhaps allowed for time to look back on the fame and publicity that had them managing far more donations than them ever had before and to reflect on the mistakes that may have been made.

And it has likely been a time to think: What’s next?

Looking forward

Mortenson, who has been largely out of the public eye since an initial response to allegations, seems to be quietly resurfacing.

On his calendar, a handful of speaking engagements are listed, beginning Oct. 28. He canceled at least one event, though – the Miami Book Fair International. Representatives at two other events said he’s still coming.

Randy Janzen, chair of the Mir Centre for Peace in British Columbia, is hosting Mortenson on Nov. 2. Janzen said the organization had scheduled the event before the controversy broke out and decided to honor its invitation. However, organizers arranged to have the speaking fee contributed to CAI rather than Mortenson.

Tracy Keys, executive director for the Newport Beach Library Foundation in California, also said Mortenson had been booked in advance.

“People are still buying tickets,” she said. “There’s an anticipation or anxiousness to hear what he has to say and give him a chance to defend himself.”

The speaking engagements will be the first since the “60 Minutes” piece aired on April 17. Two days before that, Mortenson was diagnosed with a hole in his heart, and this summer he underwent heart surgery.

Anne Beyersdorfer, acting director of CAI, said in an email to the, Chronicle recently that “Mortenson continues to heal from his open heart surgery to fix an atrial septal defect (hole in the heart) and a large aneurysm in his heart.”

In an April interview with Outside magazine, Mortenson said he longed “for a year of rest.”

Still, for the immediate future, it seems Mortenson plans to stay involved with CAI.

How long Mortenson will be a part of the organization, though, is not clear.

CAI, which claims to have a “nest egg” of about $20 million, plans to continue its mission to provide education for children, especially girls, in central Asia. On its blog, staff members have written about measures they’re taking to improve – including overseas efforts to create an inventory of CAI schools.

Recently, CAI released the organization’s “master projects list,” which documents its schools, centers and projects, and their funding, status and location.

It documented 210 schools. Of those, 17 were receiving “full support” from CAI, which includes teachers’ salaries and bonuses, stationery, school supplies, textbooks, furniture, playground equipment and monitoring by CAI contractors.

That’s 8 percent of CAI schools. The other 92 percent are under construction or are partially supported, which may or may not include support for teachers. Other schools that CAI built are supported by that country’s government.

CAI also plans to add more members to its board, which now includes Mortenson and two others.

Lawsuit and AG investigation

Since the allegations broke out, Montana lawmakers Michele Reinhart and Jean Price have filed a lawsuit against Mortenson and CAI, claiming they’d been induced to buy Mortenson’s book or donate to his charity by false statements. Price dropped out of the lawsuit in June, and CAI was dropped as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Now, plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Deborah Netter, a former Illinois teacher, Dan Donovan, a Montana attorney, and Reinhart.

The listed defendants include Mortenson, David Oliver Relin, the co-author of “Three Cups of Tea,” Penguin Group Inc. and MC Consulting Inc. The lawsuit is ongoing.

So, too, is the AG investigation, which is listed by that office as a “high priority.”

According to Jim Molloy, chief of consumer protection and assistant attorney general, the investigation includes “reviewing allegations of improper financial benefit to Greg Mortenson through the royalties, speaking fees and travel reimbursements associated with the books Mr. Mortenson wrote.”

It is not focused on “determining the truth of information included in Mr. Mortenson’s books, but it does encompass whether misrepresentations were made to donors of CAI,” according to Molloy.

In July, the, Chronicle made a public records request to the attorney general’s office, requesting documents related to Mortenson and CAI. The office returned 700 pages of documents that included CAI tax documents, emails from concerned CAI donors who wanted refunds and email exchanges among Mortenson and CAI’s attorneys and the attorney general.

None of the documents provided insight into whether the attorney general’s office believes CAI and Mortenson handled finances inappropriately.

Documents that were integral to the investigation were withheld because they are “private and confidential, and not subject to disclosure at this time” because the inquiry is ongoing, the attorney general’s office concluded.

The documents the attorney general’s office did not provide included communications with informants, other state and federal law enforcement entities, internal communications subject to privilege, and documents in which CAI “has asserted confidentiality.”

Mortenson’s legal counsel has advised him not to engage with the media “due to the ongoing inquiry by the Montana Attorney General, with which CAI and Mortenson are fully cooperating, and also due to the pending lawsuit,” according to Beyersdorfer. Mortenson would not comment for this story.

Beyersdorfer responded to a list of questions about two weeks ago with a “big-picture statement.”

“Mortenson and CAI’s Board of Directors embrace a long term vision, committed to community-based leadership, participation and sustainability,” she wrote. “This vision includes the Talim (which means education in Pashto) Fund, which ensures that students and teachers will be able to pursue their goals into the next generation through training and scholarships. In addition, CAI has restricted funds, including all the Pennies For Peace funds, designated for overseas education support for years to come.”

She said she could not specifically comment on most questions because of “Greg’s pending legal inquiries, and with respect to the people and processes involved.”

The attorney general’s office has not said when it expects to conclude the investigation.

‘Organizational weaknesses’

CAI staff have acknowledged in recent blogs posts that “through a period of rapid growth organizational weaknesses and deficiencies occurred.”

The organization rose from a small, fledgling nonprofit that was barely hanging on to a globally known group pulling in millions of dollars in donations each year.

At first, Mortenson was a mountain climber advertising his cause by showing slide shows to small audiences in his living room. Over time, he landed some big donors, namely Jean Hoerni, who co-founded Central Asia Institute with Mortenson and provided the majority of its funding in the early years.

Then, the organization was working with much less money. In the first five years, it received an average of $302,000 per year in donations. The organization was working on a variety of projects, like removing garbage from a Baltoro Glacier base camp, building a greenhouse in Mongolia and holding a clinic for cataract patients in Pakistan. Its mission statement was “Preservation of the Central Asia mountain region and its peoples through education, healthcare and environmental projects.”

“We did wander quite a bit,” said Andrew Marcus, a geography professor at the University of Oregon and former board member. “It was a classic startup nonprofit.”

Marcus, who was on the board from 1996 until 2004, said the group needed a focus, particularly because Mortenson was “vulnerable to serve every person that comes along.” Tara, Mortenson’s wife, played a major role in those early years, keeping the focus on schools and education for girls, Marcus said.

Back when there wasn’t a whole lot of money to work with, Marcus remembered Mortenson keeping itemized lists for even small items such as paperclips.

But in the years to come, the organization would see an immense boom in donations.

In 2003, when Kevin Fedarko wrote an article on Mortenson for Parade magazine, it was the organization’s first major publicity.

“April 6, 2003, was the date that the Parade article was published,” Julie Bergman, a former longtime board member, said recently. “That started change, when things were moving in a way we never could have anticipated or planned for.”

Bergman, a librarian at City College of San Francisco in California, was on the board from 1997 until 2009.

Dozens of mailbags full of letters and checks arrived at Mortenson’s home, Bergman said. That year, CAI’s donations more than doubled from the previous year, jumping from $432,500 to $908,658.

As Bergman described, “Everything rolled from there.”

Three Cups of Tea

Mortenson had been trying to get a book published. He had been told his story was great but his writing “sucks,” he told Outside magazine in April. The editor of Parade magazine knew David Oliver Relin and suggested Relin write a book with Mortenson.

Relin and Mortenson began collaborating on the book. They would fly from Portland, Ore., and Bozeman to meet in the Salt Lake City airport, Bergman said. When Mortenson went overseas, they talked on the phone.

“It was a very fragmented approach to writing a book,” Bergman said.

As Relin described later in a forward to “Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson was sometimes so “maddeningly late” that Relin considered abandoning the project altogether.

Eventually, though, the book was published and became a bestseller. In 2006, the year it was released, donations to CAI jumped from $1.5 million to $3.6 million. In 2007, CAI garnered more than $13 million in donations.

The book brought Mortenson more fame and exposure, and he had constant speaking engagements all over the country.

“He wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to raise money because at some point the books will fade and who knows if we will ever have the same opportunity again,” Bergman said. “It made Greg crazy. There was an obsession to maximize the opportunity for future work and (to enable) the longevity and sustainability of projects.”

Mortenson traveled across the country, occasionally taking private jets when his schedule was too jammed. In the last four years, Mortenson went to 126 cities per year, plus “international travel and overseas project visits,” according to CAI.

In 2009, Mortenson was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. When it was awarded to President Barack Obama, Obama opted to donate $100,000 of the prize money to CAI.

In the summer of 2010, a New York Times article described how Mortenson and CAI had helped set up dozens of meetings between the former top commander of American forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, or his senior staff members and village elders across Afghanistan.

Administrative unrest

But even as Mortenson’s fame was skyrocketing and the organization was collecting more and more donations, there was unrest among board members and staff members about how to run the organization.

Jennifer Wilson, a former board member from California and wife of the late Jean Hoerni, said she eventually left the board in 2001 because of problems she saw with the organization’s administration.

“As a board, we tried to put a structure around (Mortenson) so his talents were illuminated and he was kept out of trouble. If there were things he was not good at, a structure around him would enable things to be done well,” she said. “He wouldn’t listen. He absolutely wanted to maintain strict control over the organization.”

She said Mortenson was good at overseas work and at speaking. But the business part – such as staying in touch with contributors, sending out thank you notes and keeping track of money – were not his strong suits.

Bergman said the organization has always been “Greg-centric.” She said she knew other board members had been frustrated because of Mortenson’s lack of “business acumen” and because he could be hard to reach.

Marcus said the board had once discussed having a domestic director for CAI, and Mortenson would be the foreign director. But Mortenson was uncomfortable with the idea of someone else being in charge in the United States, and when he said that wouldn’t work, several board members left, according to Marcus.

“I would’ve preferred there be more staff in place, something more diverse and less Greg-centric,” Marcus said. “The most critical element was that good things were happening already. I wanted to stay the course rather than not be part of it.”

Marcus said working with Mortenson was very difficult and that “when you get Greg, you get him 100 percent. Then when he’s gone, he’s gone because he’s focused on the next thing 100 percent.”

Aftermath

As CAI came under fire, so did Krakauer. Mortenson’s defenders have questioned Krakauer’s motives for writing his online book, and others have pointed out controversy over his past work, such as the book “Into Thin Air.”

Krakauer has corrected some information that appeared in “Three Cups of Deceit,” but has maintained his basic allegations.

Looking back on all the controversy, Marcus recently commented that “somewhere along the line (Mortenson) was built up into this great hero.”

“He is heroic,” Marcus said, “but what he’s done has been with the help of a lot of others. That doesn’t make him infallible every step of the way.”

Marcus said he hopes the public will consider what Mortenson has accomplished.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone who’s done more for education in that part of the world,” he said. “It took a real human being to do that.”

No comment

Multiple people involved in this controversy, or with some insight, would or could not comment.

Three former board members turned down interviews, including Thomas Hornbein, Gordon Wiltsie and Sally Uhlmann.

Kate Runde, a Random House associate director who works with Krakauer on his publicity, wrote in an email that he is “not accepting interview requests on this.”

Carly Flandro may be reached at 582-2638 or cflandro@dailychronicle.com. Information from the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Central Asia Institute donations, 1996 to 2008

Informaiton is taken from the organization's tax documents.

Year Direct Public Support
1996 $ 66,987.00
1997 $ 194,723.00
1998 $ 955,711.00
1999 $ 100,731.00
2000 $ 191,719.00
2001 $ 257,248.00
2002 $ 432,506.00
2003 $ 908,658.00
2004 $ 867,148.00
2005 $ 1,541,711.00
2006 $ 3,660,538.00
2007 $ 13,101,295.00
2008 $ 13,686,792.00

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