Off the Shelf: Author faces challenge

Greg Mortenson controversy

Since 2006, millions of people have bought Greg Mortenson’s books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools about his work building schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Many gave money to his charity, the Central Asia Institute. Then, earlier this year, a 60 Minutes investigation charged that Mortenson fabricated key parts of his story — and used funds from the charity for himself.

About the same time, author Jon Krakauer’s online book, Three Cups of Deceit, made similar allegations. It was also alleged that some CAI schools overseas did not exist or were abandoned.

Mortenson has continued to deny those claims. Now a group of readers in Mortenson’s home state of Montana is suing him for fraud.

Melissa Block from National Public Radio recently interviewed court reporter Gwen Florio of the newspaper The Missoulian about the current state of the lawsuit against Mortenson, and the following is a summary of that interview.

The group of readers is bringing a class action lawsuit, representing “all consumers throughout the world” who bought the books, which estimates vary between four million and five million people.

The plaintiffs are arguing that because parts of the books are false, the people who bought the books basically did so under false pretenses. What they were reading and assuming to be true was not what actually happened; therefore, they should be reimbursed the money they paid for the books.

There is no question that the readers are putting forth somewhat unusual claims with this lawsuit, and the argument has been raised by some people in Montana that this issue should not be settled in a court.  If the readers felt bad about buying the book or giving their money, that’s one thing, but the argument is that their concerns are not the basis of a class-action lawsuit.

Sufficient damage has already been felt by Greg Mortenson in terms of being discredited, and in a drop in financial earnings, as readers are no longer buying his books.

In legal circles, no one is making any assumptions about whether there is a reasonable basis for this suit to go forward, or if it will be dismissed.

Not in conjunction with this case but on a somewhat parallel track, the state attorney general’s office has also launched a civil investigation into Mortenson’s alleged deception. It seems therefore, as though some sort of legal action will go forward.

Greg Mortenson has been silent in response to this legal action. He did not come to the court hearing two weeks ago in Missoula, and his schedule on his website indicates that he is unavailable for appearances.

He has been recovering from heart surgery he recently had in June, and is keeping an extremely low profile.

Maureen Curry is head librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library who writes weekly for The Morning Star.