Philanthropist Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, is known worldwide for building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, largely for girls. His books and school-building program have been widely praised, and his books are required reading for military commanders deployed to Afghanistan.
But after CBS’ “60 Minutes” program on April 17, featuring journalist Jon Krakauer and others in a scathing critique of Mortenson, the “philanthropist” seems more like a self-promoting hustler, if not a chronic liar and embezzler.
Mortenson appeared in Springfield on March 3, visiting students at Laketown Elementary School, being feted at a $125 a plate dinner at UIS’s PAC restaurant, and then speaking about his charities to a full house at Sangamon Auditorium. He was well-received at each venue. Mortenson was paid $33,000 plus travel expenses, including a chauffeur-driven limousine, to appear in Springfield.
Then came the “60 Minutes” exposé on April 17. The “60 Minutes” team investigated Mortenson and his charities, Central Asia Institute and Pennies for Peace, for months, spending a considerable amount of time in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The show was disheartening, but I am hoping he stands up for himself and explains some things,” Laketown Principal Renee Colwell-Roy said last week. “He has brought recognition for educating girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has done some good work.”
Students at Laketown raised almost $200 for Mortenson’s Pennies for Peace fundraising group. “Our school is a low-income school,” Colwell-Roy said. “You’re hoping that that money goes to where it’s supposed to go.”
Lakeview students read Three Cups of Tea before Mortenson’s visit to the school. “Our kids want to support other kids,” Colwell-Roy said. “He said that Afghan kids are using sticks to write in the sand. Our kids wanted them to have paper and pencils.”
Colwell-Roy wants Mortenson to be held accountable for money raised in Springfield and elsewhere. “Will our money really go to the right people?” she wonders. “It made me kind of ill to think about it.”
“We’re watching the situation to see what develops,” Derek Schnapp, head of the public relations office at UIS, said last week. Schnapp confirmed that it is not unusual for a speaker to request a limousine to campus events. UIS booked Mortenson through the Penguin Speakers Bureau in New York City, and his fee was paid to them, Schnapp said. The idea to book Mortenson was a collaborative effort coming out of the campus Student Affairs office, Schnapp added.
Mortenson was paid from a combination of state funds designated to bring speakers to the UIS campus and ticket sales, according to Schnapp. Faculty, students and staff at UIS were given free tickets to attend Mortenson’s lecture at Sangamon Auditorium. Approximately 1,400 people attended the event, some 500 paying $30 per ticket.
On the “60 Minutes” program, Krakauer accused Mortenson of fictionalizing much of his experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other things, portraying upstanding Pakistanis as members of the Taliban who kidnapped him, when they actually welcomed him into their homes.
According to “60 Minutes,” none of Mortenson’s book sales or fees for speaking go to the Central Asia Institute, and it appears that many of the schools Mortenson said were built don’t exist. Others are empty or in disrepair. A former treasurer of CAI charged that Mortenson uses his charity like a personal ATM.
UIS sophomore Caitlyn Crane, who called Mortenson “a personal hero of mine,” is particularly disappointed. Crane was in charge of coordinating the Pennies for Peace fundraising on campus, which raised $600. “It’s always a shock when your personal hero turns out to be a dishonest human being,” she said.
“It was very demoralizing because we put a lot of time on raising money,” Crane added. “We can’t know now if our money went for a legitimate cause.” The student-run coffee shop at Lincoln Residence Hall also contributed a substantial amount of its profits to Mortenson’s charities, Crane said.
The attorney general of Montana, where Mortenson lives, is investigating CAI. Charity Navigator, an organization that monitors charities, put a warning on Central Asia Institute after the “60 Minutes” program aired. Two Montana state representatives last week filed a lawsuit against Mortenson under federal racketeering statutes.
Contact Ginny Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org.