The author of a best-selling memoir about building schools for girls in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan isn't talking to the press in the wake of Sunday's "60 Minutes," which suggested he fabricated parts of his book and mismanaged millions of donated dollars.
In an e-mail to supporters, though, Greg Mortenson, who has sold more than 4 million copies of his book "Three Cups of Tea," said the CBS piece "paints a distorted picture using untrue information, innuendo and a microscopic focus on one year's (299) IRS 990 financial," the New York Daily News reported. The book inspired nearly $60 million in donations to Mortenson's nonprofit, the Central Asia Institute. It is required reading for U.S. servicemen bound for Afghanistan.
Mortenson also explained his decision not to do an on-camera interview for the "60 Minutes" story.
"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," he wrote.
The CBS News report claimed "Three Cups of Tea" was inaccurate and that the Central Asia Institute was claiming credit for building non-existent schools. CBS began investigating Mortenson last fall on the advice of former donors, board members, staffers and charity watchdogs.
"We found there are serious questions about how millions of dollars have been spent, whether Mortenson is personally benefiting, and whether some of the most dramatic and inspiring stories in his books are even true," the report said.
"Three Cups of Tea" tells the story of how Mortenson, weak and hungry from a failed attempt to reach the summit of the world's second tallest mountain, stumbled upon the tiny Pakistani village of Korphe where natives nursed him back to health. After regaining his strength, he learned children were writing their school lessons with sticks in the dust.
A young girl approached him and asked "Can you help us build a school?" Mortenson, now a sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit, said he then "made a rash promise ... I said 'I promise I'll help build a school.'"
In the CBS report, Jon Krakauer, author of "Thin Air" and one of Mortenson's earliest backers, said, among other things, that the heart-warming tale is "a lie." Two Pakistani porters who accompanied Mortenson on his trek confirmed that he didn't fall upon Korphe in a weakened state and didn't visit the village at all until nearly a year after his failed mountain climbing expedition.
Through his nonprofit, Mortenson claims he has built more than 170 schools. The CBS report suggests, however, that the Central Asia Institute schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan "were either built by others or exist only in Mortenson's imagination," according to The New York Daily News.
In the past 14 years, the Central Asia Institute has filed only one audited financial statement, CBS news reported. According to documents, the nonprofit spends more money in the United States promoting the schools than it does constructing them.
"Greg uses Central Asia Institute as his private ATM machine," Krakauer said. "There's no accounting. He has no receipts."
Dr. Baela Raza Jamil, a well-respected education advocate in Pakistan, told the Christian Science Monitor that she wondered why people had just begun to ask questions about Mortenson. When representatives from her education foundation Idara-eTaleem-o-Aagahi visited one of his schools, she said they were underwhelmed.
"They saw simple schools, stone schools, not much activity, and it made us wonder what the brouhaha was about Mortenson," she said.
In an e-mailed statement to "60 Minutes" Mortenson said, "I stand by the information conveyed in my book and by the value of Central Asia Institute's work in empowering local communities to build and operate schools that have educated more than 60,000 students."
In response to allegations that his visit to Korphe did not go as described he said, "It's important to know that Balti people have a completely different notion about time."
In addition to "puncturing a hole in the uplifting narrative of 'Three Cups of Tea,' the New York Times reported the CBS story has also revived concern over the accuracy of nonfiction memoirs, which publishers typically only lightly fact-check.
Viking, the imprint of Penguin Group USA that published the book, told the New York Times that it relied on its authors "to tell the truth, and they are contractually obligated to do so."
The publisher announced plans Monday to review the book and its contents.
"Greg Mortenson's work as a humanitarian in Afghanistan and Pakistan has provided tens of thousands of children with an education," Carolyn Coleburn, a spokeswoman for Viking, said in a statement. "'60 Minutes' is a serious news organization and in the wake of their report, Viking plans to carefully review the materials with the author."
Even if his story is inflated, supporters said Mortenson has still done good work.
"Greg was a golden boy for people who were not normally involved in development," Sara Jensen, a development worker in Afghanistan, told the Christian Science Monitor. "It made them feel good that they could suddenly understand the complex emergency in Central Asia, and that there were people out there fighting on their behalf for women's right to education."
When Christian Science Monitor reporters traveled through Afghanistan last summer, local teachers said they respected "Mister Greg" and were grateful for their new school. In 2009, the Pakistani government gave Mortenson the Star of Pakistan, the country's third highest civilian award.22 comments on this story
Ruhullah Hamid, spokesman for the Badakhshan Province Education Department said he was unaware of any corruption in Central Asia Institute's work. He said the nonprofit constructed 12 schools in the province and provided computers.
"We are very happy with these buildings that they made for us," he said. "I cannot accuse him of being corrupt, because I don't have any evidence that this institute was corrupt, but if it is true that this institute raised much money and did not spend it correctly, people will be suspicious not just in America, but in all other countries who send money to Afghanistan."