More trouble – and scrutiny – is brewing for “Three Cups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson. Claims that Mr. Mortenson fabricated events in his bestselling book, first aired on a CBS “60 Minutes” special in April are receiving renewed attention as the author’s attorneys fight a $5 million class action lawsuit against Mortenson.
The plaintiffs – former teacher Deborah Netter of Illinois and Montana residents Michele Reinhart and Dan Donovan – claim that Mortenson fooled 4 million people into buying his books by fabricating stories and portraying false events as true, in order to make Mortenson look like a hero and to raise money. The suit also questions whether Mortenson financially benefited from his charity and whether his charity built the number of schools it claimed.
The three plaintiffs are seeking to certify their class-action lawsuit and transfer all of the money from Mortenson’s book sales, estimated at more than $5 million, into a trust to be used for charity.
Mortenson’s woes began earlier this year when a CBS report based on claims made by mountaineer and author Jon Krakauer suggested the “Three Cups of Tea” author fabricated accounts in his beloved bestseller and that his charity, the Central Asia Institute, mishandled donations. The report claimed several passages from “Three Cups of Tea,” including the opening anecdote, were false. It also revealed that Mr. Mortenson’s charity spends more for book promotion and publicity than it does actually building schools overseas.
Under fire from many quarters, Mortenson defended himself in his hometown Bozeman Chronicle newspaper, denying several allegations and explaining others. He also issued a statement in which he said, “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.”
Now, thanks to the paperback publication of Mr. Krakauer’s book, “Three Cups of Deceit,” a 75-page indictment of Mortenson, his book, and his charity (available earlier in the year as an e-book, now freshly off the printing press), as well as the re-airing of the damning “60 Minutes” episode, Mortenson is back in the headlines.
Regarding his legal woes, this time, however, he’s not speaking up.
“On advice of legal counsel, he is not available to the media due to ongoing litigation in Montana, as well as the ongoing inquiry by the Montana attorney general with which he and CAI are cooperating fully,” his charity recently said in a statement. “Greg and CAI remain hopeful the legal issues will be resolved soon, and we all look forward to Greg telling his side of the story.”
In countering the attempt to certify the class-action suit against Mortenson, his attorneys never explicitly say that all the events in “Three Cups” or “Stones into Schools” are true. They do, however, urge the judge to throw out the suit because the plaintiffs can’t specifically identify any false statements or misrepresentations in the books.
Mortenson’s attorney’s also argue that the plaintiffs can't say that all 4 million people bought the books for the same reason, something they need to prove to turn their claim into a class-action lawsuit. The reasons a person buys a book is different from one individual to another, and may not be the same reason why the plaintiffs bought theirs, they argue.
“They cannot demonstrate that an identifiable group of people has experienced any wrongdoing, let alone the same wrongdoing,” the legal response reads, according to a report by the Associated Press.
In CAI statements and with his local paper, Mortenson has previously denied wrongdoing, though he has admitted that some of the events in "Three Cups of Tea" were compressed over different periods of time.
Stay tuned for another cuppa class action: the next hearing has been scheduled in September in Missoula.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.