By Matt Volz Associated Press
HELENA, Mont. (AP) – “Three Cups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson, who has spent four years weathering accusations that his best-selling book contained fabrications and that he mismanaged the charity he co-founded, will retire in January, Central Asia Institute officials said.
The announcement comes as the Bozeman, Mont.-based charity works to turn around five years of declining donations and refocus its mission from building schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Mortenson co-founded the nonprofit organization in 1996.
It was Mortenson’s decision to retire as a CAI employee and to resign his position as a non-voting member of its board, chairman Steve Bennett and executive director Jim Thaden said Thursday.
“He’s traveled overseas extensively for 20 years,” Barrett said. “It’s time for him to give himself a rest, make time for his family and do other things.”
Mortenson was traveling Thursday and did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He said in a 2014 interview with the Associated Press that he would leave the organization if he were ever a liability, but Thaden and Barrett insisted that was not the reason for his resignation.
“It’s a good place. It’s 20 years, and there’s a certain resonance with 20 years,” Barrett said.
In 2011, “60 Minutes” and author Jon Krakauer, who wrote the nonfiction bestseller “Into the Wild,” broadcast and published reports that Mortenson had made up many of the events in “Three Cups of Tea,” which told the story of how Mortenson decided to build schools in Pakistan after becoming lost during a mountaineering expedition.
The reports also accused Mortenson of using the charity to enrich himself and promote his books without sharing the royalties or speaking fees, leading to an investigation by the Montana attorney general’s office.
A 2012 settlement restructured CAI, removed Mortenson as a voting board member, and stripped him of any financial oversight. Since then, he has continued to be a full-time employee of CAI, earning nearly $194,000 last year in salary and benefits.
Mortenson plans to continue to support girls’ education, to write more and to focus on issues such as infant mortality, child marriage and violence against women, Central Asia Institute officials said. He agreed to consult with the charity for its overseas programs occasionally, Barrett and Thaden added.
“If a circumstance arises where we think it will be valuable to work with him, we will call him and see if he is available,” Barrett said.
Following the accusations against Mortenson, contributions to CAI have plummeted from $22.8 million in 2010 to $2.2 million in 2014. Its total assets have dropped from $25.7 million in 2011 to $18.7 million last year.
Thaden said donations have increased this year and the organization has shifted its mission from building schools to developmental programs geared toward vocational training, university assistance and ensuring girls complete high school.
Barrett added that CAI is in a good place after a difficult period.
“We’re focusing on the future, not on the past, and we’re making tremendous efforts,” he said.
Some of Mortenson’s harshest critics had mixed reactions to his planned resignation. CharityWatch president Daniel Borochoff said it was a step in the right direction but that it is important for CAI to replace him with somebody who is an expert or an authority in international education.
Krakauer called the resignation a positive development that is more than four years overdue, but he questioned the group’s decision to keep Mortenson as a consultant.
“I am concerned CAI apparently does not intend to sever all ties with Mortenson, which suggests that the board still doesn’t comprehend the harm Mortenson has done,” Krakauer said in an email to the AP.
Greg Mortenson’s bestselling book “Three Cups of Tea” came under intense scrutiny after “60 Minutes,” author Jon Krakauer, and people in the book said some of the stories were fabricated.
Here’s a look at some of those stories, what is disputed, and Mortenson’s response in a 2014 interview with the AP:
MORTENSON’S DESCENT FROM K2
“Three Cups of Tea”: Mortenson stumbled upon the Pakistani village of Korphe in fall 1993 after trekking from the base camp of K2, the world’s second-highest peak. He spent days in the village recovering from the descent.
The dispute: Mortenson could not have wandered to Korphe on that trip because it is on the opposite side of the Braldu River. Krakauer says no bridge existed where Mortenson supposedly crossed the river. Krakauer says he interviewed a climber and others who confirmed a bridge was at that location before and after that period, but not at the time Mortenson was there.
Mortenson’s response: He insists he went to Korphe over a narrow footbridge and disputes Krakauer’s assertions to the contrary. Mortenson has acknowledged that he spent only a few hours there, not days as was depicted in the book.
MORTENSON’S PROMISE TO BUILD A SCHOOL
“Three Cups of Tea”: Mortenson promised the villagers of Korphe that he would build them a school after they nursed him back to health. That promise forever changed his life, and he dedicated himself to building schools in Central Asia.
The dispute: Mortenson never went to Korphe, so he couldn’t have promised to build them a school, Krakauer said. However, he did promise the villagers of Khane to the southeast that he would build them a school, but he reneged on that promise and instead built it in Korphe. A fundraising plea written by Mortenson in 1994 backs up the claim that he wanted to build the school in Khane, and it makes no mention of Korphe.
Mortenson’s response: He now says he visited both Korphe and Khane villages during that 1993 trip and promised the residents of both that he would build schools for them. He says he planned to first build the Khane school but then switched to Korphe after finding a lack of local support and corruption in Khane.
“Three Cups of Tea”: Mortenson was kidnapped and held hostage by militants in the remote Pakistani region of Waziristan. They took his passport and money, kept him under armed guard and monitored his every movement. He won his freedom after asking for a Quran and telling his captors that his wife was expecting a child.
The dispute: People who were there described Mortenson as a guest in Waziristan, not a hostage. A photo shows him with his supposed captors, with Mortenson brandishing an AK-47.
Mortenson’s response: He stands by his story, though he says he regrets the unflattering descriptions of his captors in “Three Cups of Tea.”
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