It’s not that Mortenson lied, it’s that he misused your donations for his own gain

By Duganz

If you haven’t yet, take time this weekend to download and read through “Three Cups of Deceit” by Jon Krakauer. It’s free, well written, and will leave a terrible taste in your mouth.

If you have been living under a rock this last week let me summarize the week’s biggest scandal: Greg Mortenson, Bozeman resident, best selling author, and head of the Central Asia Institute, is a big fat liar covered in liar sauce.

Krakauer details each of the lies Mortenson told in his book “Three Cups of Tea,” which include: falsifying why he built a school in Korphe, Pakistan, misappropriating funds from the non-profit CAI (to the tune of over $7million), lying about a kidnapping, and not building schools he’s claimed to have built! There’s more, but I want to encourage you to read the small, free book rather than just watch the 60 Minutes episode that rehashes (poorly) Krakauer’s work.

People have been coming to Mortenson’s defense all week, with his biggest defense coming from Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. Kristof has written about Mortenson before, and admits in his column that he’s a big fan, and tries to downplay Mortenson, in effect, stealing money from a non-profit.

I don’t know what to make of these accusations. Part of me wishes that all this journalistic energy had been directed instead to ferret out abuses by politicians who allocate government resources to campaign donors rather than to the neediest among us, but that’s not a real answer. The critics have raised serious questions that deserve better answers: we need to hold school-builders accountable as well as fat cats.

Kristof drops that nugget, along with others, to mount his defense of Mortenson based on this: sure he may have lied, but he did do good–the idea being that his works outweigh his sins. As Kristof says, “…even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.”

Fine. But that doesn’t excuse Greg Mortenson lying, and deceiving good people giving up their money to make the world a better place. Mortenson’s work, and his lies, are separate issues. Yes, he’s done good, but he’s also a lying shit. Those two facts can exist simultaneously. Education for Afghan girls: Good. Misusing charitable funds for personal gain: fucking evil.

Also, this is not only about good deeds vs lies. It comes down to the fact that Mortenson has been accused (and I think the evidence adds up) of misusing donated money for personal gain. As Krakauer points out in his book, Mortenson uses CAI funds to travel to speaking engagements where he recounts the lies in his books. Upon giving his talk he is reimbursed by the event promoters. But, Mortenson does not then reimburse CAI. (FYI, flying out of Bozeman, Montana costs a fair penny.)

Even Kristof takes a moment from his ham-fisted stroke job of a column to say, “I am deeply troubled that only 41 percent of the money raised in 2009 went to build schools…”

Lying is never good, and using good deeds to justify lies is immoral. I don’t know, nor do I understand, why Greg Mortenson felt he needed to lie to justify his good deeds. I only know that he was wrong to deceive people, and wrong to waste their money on his own frivolity.

Greg Mortenson is not a hero, he’s a lying shit who also did some good. Hopefully a better person will come along to pick up his cause, with honesty.

Mortenson, chilling with his "Taliban kidnappers," who were not Taliban, and also did not kidnap him.

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  1. Ingemar Johansson

    41 cents went to the schools?

    Hey, can he run the US Welfare Office?

    Cause only 30 cents gets to the poor.

    • Nice dig, but off topic. Any thoughts on THIS issue?

      • Ingemar Johansson

        Now I do. Just read this.

        http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/04/24/cult_of_three_cups_of_tea_should_have_known_better_109641.html

        Money quote: “Instead, he sold 3 million books. Why? Through the pouring of “Three Cups,” Mortenson came to personify every liberal conceit. He pushed books, not bombs. He had a nuanced take on Islamic extremism. He’s not afraid of terrorism; for him, “the enemy is ignorance.”

        Marlowe observed, “The implication is that this solitary do-gooder’s work is a better model for helping the rural poor in areas that are a breeding ground for Islamic extremism.” While to the contrary, the U.S. Army built more schools in just one Afghan province in 15 months than CAI built in a decade.”

        Now I see my you guys are so butt-hurt.

        • Why do you have to do that? You get on a roll making good observations, and scoring points left and right… and then you end with the implication that I’m “butt-hurt” because Mortenson was a liberal hero doing what the liberals want and doing such liberal goods, and it turns out he’s a liar and the military is doing more.

          That’s not it at all.

          Mortenson was, for me personally, never a heroic figure. (I’m a product of journalism school, and an avowed skeptic so when I hear the word “memoir” I know I’m dealing with bullshit.) What bothers me really is that he pissed away people’s money–that bothers me all the time BS, even when it’s my Uncle Sam (see my post on taxes).

          I get so annoyed when you squander your chance to make a good argument by acting like a horse’s ass.

  2. ladybug

    The world, and Bozeman in particular, is full of phony NGOs and self-promoters pocketing gifts from unsuspecting supporters. This one had all the tell-tale signs of a bait-and-switch operation from the very beginning.

    • mr benson

      Yes, a lot of people in the Gallatin drank the CAI kool aid. But then, so did a lot of people in other parts of Montana and the USA as well. The President (of the United States, Mr Obama) gave him 100 grand.

      I think the “schools for muslim girls in afghanistan” mission was just such a wishful thing; that instead of blowing the shit out of people we were actually helping them, and that we were bringing a bit of western enlightenment into a world still in the middle ages, philosophically.

      One big lesson, neither war nor charity in Afghanistan is easy, or easily justified.

  3. mr benson

    I think there’s a lot of personal axe grinding in three cups of deceit.

    Here’s how I see the situation. One audited financial statement in eight years isn’t acceptable. Not setting up a “bureaucratic” (Mortenson’s word) accounting and governance system in a non profit, in other words, winging it, is as risky as it comes for the person winging it. There’s nothing backstopping Mortenson to answer the charges about money and governance. He grew very big, very quickly, and got swept away by all of it.

    However, lots of non profits go through the “charismatic founder”/”board wanting accountability” issue. CAI may be able to continue the mission. I will wait and see if there is actually a huge amount of funds taken from the non profit for mansions and airplanes and personal gain, or whether it’s just lack of governance that allowed things to get sideways.

    It could also be that the corporate veil has been pierced, based on what I’ve read. Certainly, the acceptable range of the “program” (schoolbuilding) to fundraising/administrative (books, flights etc) wasn’t achieved, and (like welfare) the non program costs could be way out of whack compared to what reasonable donors would support.

    The accusations of the falsehoods in the books must be answered by Mortenson himself.

    In general terms, what I found ugliest was how he was described in his personal and business dealings.

    BTW, you’re right. The ends don’t justify deceitful means. They rarely do. I’ve always disagreed with the far left in that regard (that ends justify means is a critical rule in Rules for Radicals.)

    Rationalization and denial are all too human traits we all share. Believe in something passionately enough, and a person can trick themselves into justifying about anything.

    I’ve been wondering how much of this attack is due to his associations with the military and US government. Then the ends/means shoe is on the other foot.

    I think the attitude in the Gallatin is a lot more “wait and see” and charitable than you’re showing. I just don’t think that he’s a modern day Reverend Ike squirreling away personal gain from his flock. If anything, it looks like everything got too big and fast and out of control.

    BTW, the AG is investigating? Is he running for Governor, or what? Should he get flagged for “piling on”? Maybe he could cooperate with another big raid on legal businesses too?

  4. mr benson

    Oh, and I think Jon K’s books are great and read them all. Thin air, banner, wild, the Tillman book, all excellent writing. I’ve heard complaints about them all, but they are very entertaining and engrossing. Three cups of deceit was a pretty good read, too.

    • If you read “…Deceit” then you read about the audit detailing not one, but four years of misuse of funds, 2009 just being by far the worst.

      You are right to criticize that this may simply be a lack of oversight, but I think Krakauer does a good job describing (from interviews with past employees of CAI) that there were many attempts to put oversight in place when it came to Mortenson’s expenditures, and he ignored them. (Receipts? I don’t need no stinkin’ receipts!)

      That brazen disregard for internal authority, and his apparent smugness show that this is much more than a lack of oversight within CAI, and more an issue with Mortenson.

      Unfortunately I don’t think Mortenson will ever answer to the accusations against him. And because of our modern attention span, this will eventually blow over.

      • How about let’s start a class action suit against all the errors of facts and ommissions in:

        Into Thin Air (libel of AB)
        Into the WIld (Chris McCandlass did not die of poison plants)
        Where Men Win Glory (Pat Tillman’s mother was so pissed off she wrote her own book).

        So, let just do some fact checking on Jon before he starts pointing fingers at others….

  5. JC

    Mr. B raises some good points. It will be interesting to see how this controversy (however it is resolved) affects the military’s approach (including making Mortenson’s book required reading) to Afghanistan/Pakistan, and the global view of our military mission.

    The WaPo has an interesting take on this:

    “But the scandal’s most far-reaching impact could be on the U.S. military, which was quick to embrace Mortenson’s message that one American could help change the lives of Afghans and bring light and learning to a troubled part of the world. His recipe for winning the war on terror was tantalizingly simple: By building schools – especially girls’ schools — in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mortenson and his backers could vanquish Islamic extremism…

    In the near term, Mortenson’s stumble will almost certainly lead to greater soul-searching among officers who have been questioning not only Mortenson but also the broader hearts-and-minds approach of this war. And the controversy is likely to spur more discussion about the limits of American goodwill and influence in a place such as Afghanistan.

    “No amount of tea with Afghans will persuade them that we are like them, that our war is their war or that our interests are their interests,” said Michael Miklaucic, a longtime official with the U.S. Agency for International Development who is currently serving at the Pentagon’s National Defense University. “The war in Afghanistan isn’t about persuasion or tea. It is about power.”

  6. ladybug

    The Punishment of Virtue by Sarah Chayez is another book worth a read on Afghanistan. There are also regular journal writings from Kandahar since before the US invasion. Chayez puts a lot out there — historical and comtemporary — to contemplate.

  7. JayByrd

    As was pointed out on PBS News Hour Friday, Mortenson, by linking his project publicly with the U.S. military, made every one of his schools, its teachers and its students, legitimate targets in Taliban eyes. And they have a track record for ruthless killings.
    Reminds me of the “play pump” project in Africa, where a good-hearted soul decided to build rural water systems powered by children’s merry-go-rounds. Sounded great, National Geographic (and a lot of other media) did a puff piece and millions were contributed.
    Then Frontline went back and checked and found most of the systems were abandoned after a year or so because of missing parts or disinterested kids.
    Many times a good story is just too good to be true.

  8. Venola

    Greg Mortenson may not have performed perfectly according to your standards, but he did something rather than whine, criticize and dismiss. I left America because of people like you. I’m proud to be an American because of people like him. And everyone referring to Mortenson’s work in the past tense, try accomplishing anything good in an alien and hostile environment. Mortenson’s book portrayed a flawed human being who was doing what he could. The same character that was able to accomplish that is the one that pulled threads from everywhere to make the tapestry. Afghans who grew up in Pakistan and escaped the Taliban by a hair love Mortenson and his work, however he does it. You bitter little bean counters, shame on you.

  9. wade

    ””’Bitter little bean counters” ….Mother Terea,, Greg and I were laughing over coctails the other day ,,,the bean counteres absent ,,,,,she was awfully ripe…Gred assured me,.. time is a matter of perception….that the Talban guys he pictured with an AK47in his hands were wanta be”s some kind of sematic thing bless his thiefing heart

  10. mr benson

    Krakauer relies too much on the “ATM” quote. I think it’s indicative of a lack of internal controls over expenses more than what K uses it as, an indictment of Mortenson.

    The Newsweek/Daily Beast article, just up this week, quotes a board member as saying, “did we say the ends justified the means? Yes we did”.

    Now that’s a self indictment of the board’s lack of fiduciary responsibility, not Mortenson.

  11. Oh, weren’t you all so sassy back in April when your ONE SOURCE JON KRAKAUER called Mortenson a liar. Well, time has shown us that Jon Krakauer is the liar. None of his allegations have held up in the court, the CAI is not guilty of anything.

    Two points: If Krakauer REALLY thought GM was abusing funds, a simple call or email to the IRS would have taken care of it.

    Two: He is the only person with any evidence. That is why all the motions for the class action keep failing, a LACK OF ANY CRIMINAL WRONG DOING.

    Krakauer has all the facts? Why isn’t he in MIssoula with all his evidence? He would rather be the puppet master behind the scenes like calliing Sayaf Mashud in Feb. 2011 and telling him to sue Mortenson for libel.

    Does that sound like a crusader? Or a psycho bent on bringing down another hero like – ANATOLI BOUKEEREEVE?

    THe body count around Krakauer continues to grow and his timing to pull this student on the eve of Mortenson surgery just goes to show you he was hoping for another BIZARRE death to make his millions off of.




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