'Three Cups of Tea' Author Denies '60 Minutes' Claims

Greg Mortenson defends stories from his memoir, charitable work.

April 17, 2011, 6:12 PM

April 17, 2011— -- "Three Cups of Tea" author Greg Mortenson sent an email to supporters today, calling a CBS News program "60 Minutes" report that criticized his memoir and alleged financial improprieties "a distorted picture using inaccurate information."

Mortenson, a three-time Nobel Prize nominee, recounted in the book how he was inspired to help establish schools, especially for girls in Pakistan, after he got lost while hiking there and stumbled upon the village of Korphe, where he was taken in and cared for by the villagers.

The "60 Minutes" segment aired today, alleged that the story is a fabrication and that Mortenson uses his charitable organization as a "private ATM machine."

Among the show's other allegations against Mortenson -- who has sold millions of copies of his best-selling book about traveling and later building schools in Pakistan -- were that his charitable organization has taken credit for building schools that don't actually exist or were built by others.

"Three Cups of Tea," tells the tale of this experience, and how his time with the villagers inspired him to return to the region to build a school for girls.

"As those of you who know me and have supported my work over the years will recognize, the story being framed by '60 Minutes' to air in a few hours today -- as far as we can tell -- paints a distorted picture using inaccurate information, innuendo and a microscopic focus on one year's (2009) IRS 990 financial, and a few points in the book 'Three Cups of Tea' that occurred almost 18 years ago," Mortenson wrote in the email today.

"The Board of Directors and I made the very difficult decision to not engage with '60 Minutes' on camera, after they attempted an eleventh hour aggressive approach to reach me, including an ambush in front of children at a book signing at a community service leadership convention in Atlanta," he wrote. "It was clear that the program's disrespectful approach would not result in a fair, balanced or objective representation of our work, my books or our vital mission."

Among those who have publicly declared their doubt about Mortenson's account of his early experiences in Pakistan is Jon Krakauer, author of bestsellers "Into the Wild" and "Into Thin Air."

In the email, Mortenson said he had also turned down a request from Krakauer for an interview.

Porters who met Mortenson on his mountain trip in Pakistan dispute his being lost at the time and have said that he only stumbled into the village while returning from hiking K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth, according to the "60 Minutes" report. They allege that he didn't visit Korphe and meet the villagers mentioned in the book until a year later.

"It's a beautiful story. And it's a lie," Krakauer told CBS News. "I have spoken to one of [Mortenson's] companions, a close friend who hiked out from K2 with him, and this companion said, 'Greg never heard of Korphe until a year later.'"

"If you read the first few chapters of that book, you realize, 'I am being taken for a ride here,'" he added.

According to the website of the Central Asia Institute, which was co-founded by Mortenson and Jean Hoerni, the non-profit has established more than 170 schools and helped educate more than 68,000 students, with an emphasis on girls' education.

During the investigation, "60 Minutes" found that several of the principals of a number of the schools allegedly built and funded by CAI where empty or built by others, while several school principals said they had not received money from CAI in years.

The CBS report also alleges that the CAI spends more donor money discussing the buildings of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the U.S. than it does on actually building them -- while one charity group alleges that donor money is being used to promote Mortenson and his book.

"In 2002, [Mortenson's] board treasurer quit, resigned, along with the board president and two other board members ... he said, in so many words, that Greg uses Central Asia Institute as his private ATM machine. That there's no accounting. He has no receipts," Krakauer told CBS.

In a statement released by Mortenson via the CAI on Friday, the author and humanitarian defended himself, his organization and the integrity of his work.

"I stand by the information conveyed in my book and by the value of CAI's work in empowering local communities to build and operate schools that have educated more than 60,000 students," Mortenson said.

"I continue to be heartened by the many messages of support I receive from our local partners in cities and villages across Afghanistan and Pakistan, who are determined not to let unjustified attacks stop the important work being done to create a better future for their children."

Mortenson also pointed to sexism in the countries where his organization has built schools as a cause of the controversy, stating that "Afghanistan and Pakistan are complex places, torn by conflicting loyalties, and some who do not want our mission of educating girls to succeed."

"Three Cups of Tea" was co-authored with David Oliver Relinhis and has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide since its 2006 release by Penguin Books.

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