A fraud or a tempest in a teacup?

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 19, 2011 - 10:50 AM

Local schools inspired by St. Cloud native Greg Mortenson's work hope to use flap as a teachable moment.

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Greg Mortenson with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a school opening in Afghanistan.

Photo: U.s. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. Mcneeley, Associated Press

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For years now, the youth edition of Minnesota-born author Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea" has been a popular part of fifth-grade teacher Nancy Glades' class at Eisenhower School in Hopkins.

This year, her kids raised $862.02 for Mortenson's school-building charity because they were so inspired by his tale of a failed mountain climb leaving him dehydrated in a Pakistani village, where he was nursed back to health and vowed to repay the kindness by building a school.

Now, a "60 Minutes" report accuses Mortenson of fabricating part of that memoir, citing sources who say he actually first visited the village of Korphe nearly a year after trying to climb K2.

The CBS News show said it went to nearly 30 of the 54 schools Mortenson's charity has built in Afghanistan and roughly half were empty, built by someone else or not receiving support.

It also reported that financial records appear to show that the charity uses contributions to pay for Mortenson to travel on speaking and book promotion tours, but doesn't share in his speaking fees or book profits.

"My initial reaction was: 'Oh, no, another one of these sham things,'" Glades said Monday. "I think the kids will be disappointed. They kind of hero-ize the guy and that's one reason I teach the book."

More than 100 schools and groups in Minnesota and 5,000 nationwide have participated in the Pennies for Peace charity. Mortenson is the co-founder and director of the nonprofit Central Asia Institute and established the charity after "Three Cups of Tea," set in the remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, was published in 2006 and later took off as a paperback. The institute has built schools, mostly for girls, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The charity's tax forms list the locations of its schools and how many students it serves. In fiscal 2009, it served 28,475 students in Afghanistan, of which 21,165 were girls.

'Distorted picture'

From his home in Montana, where Mortenson says he's undergoing a surgical heart procedure this week, he said in the statement that the "60 Minutes" report was "a media circus [that] ... paints a distorted picture using inaccurate information [and] innuendo."

Viking, his publisher, said it will review the best-selling book and its contents with Mortenson, 53, who pledges "to come out fighting for what is right and just" when his health improves.

Mortenson was born in St. Cloud, the child of Lutheran missionaries. He spent most of his childhood in Tanzania, but moved back to Minnesota in the 1970s.

He attended Ramsey High School in Roseville from 1973-'75, then joined the U.S. Army. After his discharge, he attended Concordia College in Moorhead for two years, playing football, before eventually graduating from the University of South Dakota.

Jeff McMillan, Mortenson's personal assistant, said that in some cases, the charity has paid for the building of the schools, while in others, it underwrites things like teachers' salaries and supplies.

He also said that the Afghan school year began on March 23. "I don't know when CBS was there, but if it was when school was out, the schools would appear to be empty," he said.

Teachable moment

Glades plans to show clips from the broadcast and share the author's rebuttals in a discussion Tuesday with her students.

"As a teacher, maybe I should have checked with the Better Business Bureau or somebody," she said. "I don't question that he's doing a lot of good work, but the accountability part of it is disappointing. It is another teachable moment - reality is never as clear-cut as you'd like it to be."

Similar discussions will go on at schools that have sent money, including Westside Elementary School in River Falls, Wis., where Mortenson's mother, Jerene, once served as principal and where kids have been collecting spare change for Pennies of Peace for years.

"It is our belief that good work has gone on," said River Falls Superintendent Tom Westerhaus, who watched the "60 Minutes" episode. "We're withholding judgment until we really hear the other side of the story."

"Our expectations, from our kids and families, is that the money we've raised is being used for building schools. If we find out differently, we'll have to reconsider," Westerhaus said.

Safia Khan, 23, of St. Paul, traveled extensively with Mortenson in 2009, including a trip to Pakistan, as an unpaid personal assistant. She was "shocked to see the allegations" because the author is "the most humble, hard-working and ethical person I've ever met and he's not hungry for attention or power."

She said his lifestyle was far from lavish and he would stay in "beat-up guest homes not fancy hotels" but could be somewhat disorganized when it came to paperwork.

"I never saw him spend a single penny that wasn't necessary," she said.

"He never drank alcohol and would sleep only four hours a night so he could get up early and work. I'm convinced there is a different side and I refuse to believe the picture being painted."

The New York Times contributed to this report. Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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