Last night, the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” aired a piece on Greg Mortenson, charging that the author and philanthropist fabricated many of the stories recounted in his best-selling books. The investigation also unveiled information that suggests his non-profit, the Central Asia Institute, was simply a front for Mortenson to publicize his for-profit ventures under the guise of building schools for children overseas.
In his first book, Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson relayed a near-death experience he faced after a failed effort to ascend the top of K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth, on the border of China and Pakistan. Like something out of a bad film or a trite young adult novel, Mortenson claims he became lost but was saved and nursed back to health by the residents of a nearby Pakistani village by the name of Korphe. Upon coming back to health, he proclaims that he’ll return one day and build a school.
The story has been revealed to be as fake as it sounds. Several people, including companions on Mortenson’s failed K2 ascent, let it slip that he hadn’t even heard of Korphe, let alone been to the village, until his next visit to the region over a year later.
Other accusations transcend the inclusion of tall tales in his memoirs. He’s also accused of using his non-profit organiztion, the Central Asia Institute, as a piggy bank to publicize his for-profit ventures. The organization released only one financial statement in over fourteen years of existence. In that statement, $1.9 million of the funds raised through the organization are spent on what is described as “book-related expenses.” The amount is more than was disclosed as being spent on all the schools combined.
Well, assuming it went to those schools at all. The “60 Minutes” crew visited the schools CAI claimed to have constructed and found most were abandoned buildings and others were actually constructed and maintained by other organization. One school Principal told the crew he had not received funds promised by CAI the last several years.
As if that wasn’t enough, its seems Mortenson even fabricated a story about being held prisoner by the Taliban for over a week and identified the kidnappers as individuals he took a picture with during his time in Pakistan. The men themselves have vehemently denied any association with the Taliban. One of them is a research director for a high profile organization in Islamabad.
It doesn’t surprise me that someone thinks they can get away with telling outrageous lies and using money donated under the pretense of educating the poorest of the poor in far away lands to line their own pockets. What does surprise me is that Mortenson has been getting away with it for so long, despite all the accusations leveled against him by former donors and board members the last several years.
Being a James Frey is one thing, but it’s another thing entirely to run such an elaborate con. There are few things in this world more reprehensible than those who engage in chicanery under the guise of philanthropy while propping themselves up by stepping on backs already broken by the strain of social inequity.
Due to the nature of Mortenson’s transgressions, finding and executing a suitable punishment will prove difficult. If only he’d had the courage to pull out a gun when asking people to empty their pockets.
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