Ten sips from “Three Cups of Deceit” — starting in Seattle

Jon Krakauer describes Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” and its Seattle origins.

By now, most of you have probably heard something about the allegations of literary fabrication and financial misdeeds of the celebrated humanitarian Greg Mortenson, author of the inspiring book Three Cups of Tea.

The accusations were aired on CBS last Sunday, on 60 Minutes.

Now, fellow mountain climber and author Jon Krakauer — one of the early Seattle supporters of Mortenson’s philanthropic efforts — has written a much more detailed, and potentially devastating, account of what he says went wrong with this effort to bring education and empowerment to the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It all began in Seattle.

Krakauer’s treatise called Three Cups of Deceit came out following the CBS News report. (It is now offered online free, for 72 hours, by Byliner.com … after which it self-destructs?)

For those who want to know more than the abbreviated version of the allegations raised on 60 Minutes, I do recommend reading it. (Makes me wonder who got on to this story first — Krakauer or CBS News.)

For those who want to know more but don’t want to read all 90 pages, here are Krakauer’s main points:

  • The financial impetus for Greg Mortenson’s effort to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan came in Seattle. A pioneering physicist and electronics expert who lived here, the late Jean Hoerni, met with Mortenson in Seattle and donated the seed money — $12,000 first, $250,000 later.
  • The famed mountaineer and Seattle resident Tom Hornbein, former chief of anesthesiology at the UW, was recruited in 1999 to assist with fund-raising for Mortenson’s new Central Asia Institute (CAI).
  • Hornbein recruited Krakauer to host a big fund-raiser at Seattle Town Hall where he was asked to introduce Mortenson and endorse his cause. He did and later ended up donating $75,000 to the CAI.
  • In 2002, Hornbein and others resigned from the board of CAI claiming that Mortenson was refusing to inform them or be held financially accountable. One former board member, Gordon Wiltsie, told Krakauer at the time that he was quitting because: “Greg regards CAI as his personal ATM.”
  • In 2006, when Three Cups of Tea was published, the new CAI board increased Mortenson’s salary to $145,000. Mortenson resolved to turn CAI “into a promotion-and-fund-raising machine” by launching what amounted to a perpetual book tour, Krakaeur writes.
  • In 2006, CAI’s total revenue amounted to $1.6 million. In 2007 it was $3.8 million and in 2008, it ballooned to $14.1 million. In 2009 (the most recent year for which CAI has filed a tax return), it was $14.3 million. In 2010, according to statements by Mortenson, CAI received more than $20 million in donations.
  • On April 16, 2011, the CAI board of directors asserted, “Greg has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization ….” Krakauer says such claims appear to contradict financial statements posted on CAI’s website.
  • CAI has paid virtually all of the expenses incurred by Mortenson, Relin, and at least some of his uncredited ghostwriters while they were researching, writing, and promoting the books.This has included private jets.
  • In a confidential memo dated January 3, 2011, an attorney who examined CAI’s most recent federal tax return advised Mortenson and the board of directors that CAI’s outlays for book advertising and travel expenses for Mortenson’s speaking engagements appeared to be in violation of the tax code.
  • “For a charity that exists to help the poor in the developing world,” says Daniel Borochoff, president of the charity watchdog the American Institute of Philanthropy, “this is pretty outrageous behavior. Mortenson is acting as if CAI was his own private business. It’s not. He’s using the public’s money.”

Jon Krakauer

Krakauer (who now lives in Colorado) goes on to note that Mortenson’s Pennies for Peace program (P4P) has raised nearly $2 million by asking hundreds of thousands of children at nearly three thousand schools to donate lunch money to CAI, and that most of the funds have gone to promote book sales.

He also says that Mortenson’s claim to be building schools to battle Taliban recruitment in militant-thick parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan is false — just as was his claim to have been held hostage by Taliban fighters and his original claim of being rescued by villagers in Korphe.

Greg Mortenson

Mortenson has built some schools in remote areas and deserves credit for that, Krakauer writes. But he hasn’t been as successful at putting teachers and students in the buildings, the author says, or building nearly as many as he claimed. Staff at CAI are mostly devoted to supporting the promotional activities, Krakauer says, rather than actually getting schools staffed and functioning.

Mortenson has done a great deal of good, Krakauer writes, promoting the value of girls education and probably actually benefiting tens of thousands of children. But, he says:

It is now evident, however, that Mortenson recklessly betrayed this trust, damaging his credibility beyond repair.

The cause that Mortenson has championed is incredibly important and worthy of support. Krakauer, who admits to bitterness at being “conned” by Mortenson, says he believes the Central Asia Institute and its mission can be “salvaged” and restored to its noble purpose — but only if it does so without Mortenson.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.