Three Cups of Tea lawsuit could open door to others

Three Cups of Tea

The Chronicle of Philanthropy is reporting that a lawsuit filed against Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, and his organization, the Central Asia Institute, could open the door to further lawsuits — at other charitable organizations.

As you will recall, or can read here, Mortenson and his philanthropy have been accused of a number of things, including fabricating aspects of his inspiring narrative but, more seriously, misusing funds and misleading donors.

The Chronicle’s Debra E. Blum reports:

The complaint, filed last week in a U.S. District Court in Montana, alleges that Mr. Mortenson and the institute fraudulently solicited donations and earned book profits based on his claims about his experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The lawsuit stems from investigations by the “60 Minutes” news show and the author Jon Krakauer that have cast doubts about Mr. Mortenson’s accounts of his charity’s work and his own adventures. If the lawsuit is granted class-action status, Mr. Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute could be on the hook to return millions of dollars in donations and proceeds from the books.

Of broader interest to the philanthropic community are those who say these lawsuits could reverberate well beyond Mortenson and his charity. The Chronicle:

Legal experts say that if the case, which is seeking class-action status, is allowed to proceed, it would give unprecedented recourse to people who feel they were duped into supporting a charity. It would also, they say, leave charities vulnerable to damaging lawsuits by unhappy donors and customers.

Some experts think the legal complaint is unlikely to proceed. One Chicago legal expert, Jack Siegel, quoted in the article put it this way:

“It’s like saying that everybody who learned that John Edwards was not necessarily the clean-cut guy they thought he was is now entitled to ask for their campaign contributions back,” Siegel says.

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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.