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‘Three Cups of Tea’ controversy comes to Telluride, but not Greg Mortenson himself

One speaker at last year’s Telluride Mountainfilm Festival was convicted in March of federal felonies. But before his sentencing in June, climate activist Tim DeChristopher will be back again this year to talk about his disruption of federal gas leasing in Utah.

Not so, Greg Mortenson. The embattled former mountain climber has been accused of taking giant liberties with the truth in his inspiring and best-selling book, “Three Cups of Tea,” and with using donations intended to build schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan as his “own private ATM.”

Festival organizers say that they have accepted the offer from Mortenson, who spoke at last year’s festival over the Memorial Day weekend, to step down from his scheduled roles this year as a film judge and panel speaker.

The door for a return appearance remains only slightly ajar, said Peter Kenworthy, executive director for Mountainfilm, now in its 33rd year.

“Who knows, maybe he will say he’s willing to get on stage with, say, (New York Times columnist) Nick Kristof for a cross-examination. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it could be a way to structure that. It might be OK,” said Kenworthy on Monday.

By his own account, Mortenson first showed up at Mountainfilm in 1981, when the festival was only three years old and he was a young climber. The festival has broadened over the decades, becoming more a festival of ideas, with mountains only occasionally the focus. The festival’s motto is “celebrating indomitable human spirit.”

Mortenson’s story seemed a perfect fit for that theme. Following his failed attempt to summit K2, a mountain on the Pakistani border, he vowed to build schools, especially for girls, and his efforts have won the plaudits of journalists, diplomats and generals familiar with his work in the impoverished, war-torn countries.

President Barack Obama donated $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize award to Mortenson’s Montana-based organization, the Central Asia Institute. Altogether, the organization has raised $60 million in a few short years based on Mortenson’s compelling story, noble mission, and frequent, riveting talks at Telluride and other places.

But the recent “60 Minutes” segment raises questions that even Mortenson’s defenders admit are serious. In a segment broadcast April 17, the TV newsmagazine accused Mortenson of falsifying several important segments in his book. He was never separated from his climbing companion during his convalescence in the Pakistani village, and he also was never kidnapped by the Taliban, Mountainfilm organizers contend.

Leveling the accusations is another mountain climber, Jon Krakauer, with serious credibility of his own. Author of “Into Thin Air” and more recently “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman,” Krakauer told “60 Minutes” that Mortenson’s story is a “beautiful story, and it’s a lie.” He says that Mortenson had not even heard of the village where he supposedly convalesced until a year afterward.

Perhaps even more damaging are the allegations that Mortenson, as Krakauer put it, used the non-profit organization as a personal ATM. On the program and in an online 80-page book at Byliner Originals , Krakauer accuses Mortenson of using funds to conduct a sometimes lavish lifestyle, even including the use of personal jets.

The American Institute of Philanthropy, on its website report, is sharply critical of Mortenson’s organization.

“A donation to Central Asia Institute, at least in 2009, was more likely to be spent on costs related to educating people in the U.S. about problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan than on helping children in central Asia with their education,” said a March 30 posting. It said the organization spent $4.6 million on outreach, according to its 2009 report, as compared to less than $4 million for actual construction, administration and other expenses directly related to schools.

The report also found that the organization was claiming expenses for Mortenson’s outreach work for sale of his books, but not taking a return for book sales. “Three Cups of Tea” has now sold 4 million copies.

In his appearance last year at Telluride, Mortenson admitted to some corner-shaving. He was interviewed there by George Packer, a writer for The New Yorker. Packer noted a difference between “Three Cups of Tea” and Mortenson’s second book, “Stones into Schools.” The latter book, observed Packer, was “less happy but more interesting.”

In that exchange, Mortenson revealed that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with “Three Cups of Tea.” Mortenson said he was driven by both his publisher and his writing collaborator to heighten the drama.

In the last week, Mortenson’s admirers have defended him, but some more cautiously than others.

In his New York Times column, Kristof last week admitted to being an “enormous admirer” of Mortenson. “In person, Greg is modest, passionate and utterly disorganized,” he wrote last week.

Kristof said he was inclined “to reserve judgment until we know more, for disorganization may explain more faults than dishonesty.” And, he added, he was “willing to give some benefit of the doubt to a man who has risked his life on behalf of some of the world’s most voiceless people.”

Journalist Dan Glick, writing from Pakistan, went even further. “He is probably ill-suited to run a $20-million a year non-profit, and seems stubborn enough to ignore good advice from people who otherwise appreciate his work and message,” Glick wrote.

But Glick said Krakauer and others would have been better served to devote their journalism to ferreting out charlatans, exposing financial fraud, and holding people and institutions accountable.

Ryan Crocker, former diplomat to both Pakistan and Afghanistan, called it “a literary dispute more than it is a dispute about what he’s done for education.”

Kenworthy, at Mountainfilm, said the first instinct of the festival organizers was to reach out to Mortenson, to let him know they were thinking of him.

But now, after more fully assessing the evidence, said Kenworthy, he’s less inclined to think any good can come from Mortenson’s presence. “I am afraid that if Greg were to come, it would be only a lose-lose situation,” he said.

As someone who directs a non-profit, said Kenworthy, there is a need for proper policies, procedures and process, and it appears that Mortenson did some things as a non-profit director that were clearly verboten. “I don’t want to condemn him but neither am I condoning him,” he said. “I just want answers.”

The case of Tim DeChristopher is different, he said. “As long as we support what they’re doing, that’s fine. In Greg’s case, it’s not the kind of controversy we’re looking for.”

More of Allen Best’s reporting about mountain towns and other topics can be found at http://mountaintownnews.net

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