HELENA, Mont. – After making a $1 million deal to settle allegations that he misused his charity’s money and resources, author Greg Mortenson now must face accusations that he fabricated parts of his bestselling books “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools.”
A hearing is set for Wednesday in federal court in Great Falls on claims that Mortenson lied about how he came to build schools in Central Asia after losing his way in a failed mountaineering expedition and being nursed back to health in a Pakistani village.
The lawsuit â€” filed by two California residents, a Montana man and an Illinois woman who bought the books â€” list more than two dozen alleged fabrications and accusations of wrongdoing by Mortenson, publisher Penguin Group, co-author David Oliver Relin and the Central Asia Institute.
In “Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson tells how he resolved to build schools in Central Asia after wandering into a poor Pakistani village, then follows him as he expands his school-building efforts. The 2006 book was conceived as a way to raise money and tell the story of his institute, founded by Mortenson in 1996. The book and tireless promotion of the charity by Mortenson, who appeared at more than 500 speaking engagements in four years, resulted in tens of millions of dollars in donations.
The plaintiffs say Mortenson and the others purposely presented the lies as the truth to trick readers into buying the books and donating to the charity. They accuse Mortenson and the others of racketeering, fraud, deceit, breach of contract and unjust enrichment. A First Amendment expert calls the lawsuit absurd, regardless of whether the books contain fabrications.
Mortenson did not defame or harm anybody in his books, and barring narrow exceptions like national secrets, he can write what he wants and does not have to justify it, said Wayne Giampietro, a Chicago attorney and general counsel of the First Amendment Lawyers Association.
“It’s his story. It purports to be his experiences. He can say it any way he wants to say. He has the right to publish anything he wants about himself,” Giampietro said. “The idea that you can be sued because perhaps they don’t like what you wrote, for whatever reason, is absurd.”
Lawyers for Mortenson and Penguin Group plan to argue that very point before U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon. They are asking Haddon to dismiss the lawsuit, which seeks triple the amount of total books sales, plus punitive damages. The lawsuit is asking a judge to order that everybody who bought the books be refunded. Whatever money is left over would go to a humanitarian organization selected by the plaintiffs’ attorneys and approved by the court
That promises to be several million dollars. “Three Cups of Tea” alone sold about 4 million copies.
The hearing comes less than two weeks after Mortenson and the Montana attorney general announced a $1 million agreement to settle claims that Mortenson mismanaged the Central Asia Institute and misspent its funds. The agreement removes Mortenson from any financial oversight and overhauls the charity’s structure, but it did not address the contents of the books.
That’s where the civil lawsuit comes in. The four plaintiffs allege that Mortenson, Relin, Penguin, the Central Asia Institute and Mortenson’s consulting group, MC Consulting, were involved in a conspiracy to promote and sell the books based on lies.
Some alleged fabrications in the lawsuit were first brought to light last year by author Jon Krakauer and a “60 Minutes” story that questioned the truth behind Mortenson’s writings and whether he was benefiting from his charity. Those reports prompted the Montana attorney general’s investigation and also the civil lawsuit whose original plaintiffs dropped out months ago.