My take on Greg Mortenson and CAI


Greg Mortenson and Gary Robson

Greg Mortenson with me at a book signing event at my store in Montana.

I am unaffiliated with Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute, and I’m not privy to any financial information beyond what is released on their website. My wife and I have donated to them both personally and through our bookstore, so I was shocked to hear of the hit piece that 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer put together.

At first, I didn’t want to hear what they had to say. I recorded the episode, and ended up watching it about a month after it aired. I know that Jon Krakauer donated a substantial amount of money to CAI, so I can understand that he was unhappy to find discrepancies in the financial reporting. I don’t understand, however, why this has turned into such a personal crusade for him. The 60 Minutes ambush at the book signing, while typical of them, was uncalled-for. I know how much it would piss me off if reporters pulled something like that at one of my events!

I read the responses Greg sent out to the 60 Minutes questions, and CAI’s responses to the allegations, and found nothing that made me feel uncomfortable about continuing to support the efforts of CAI (all of this information is on CAI’s website). Even the 60 Minutes attack piece pointed out that Greg and CAI have built a lot of schools and educated a lot of children.

Greg came to our store in 2007, shortly after the paperback release of Three Cups of Tea. He was running late, and I went out to his truck with him to help bring his things in. He pointed out four cases (!) of hardback books in the truck and asked me to help carry them. I told him we really didn’t need that many, since we had a few left and the paperback was out.

“Some people prefer hardbacks,” he told me. “Take these all, and see if you can sell them. If you do, send some money to CAI. If you have copies left that you can’t sell, give them away to people that you think should read them. Libraries, schools, churches, or anyone else.”

(Dear pedants: the previous paragraph is paraphrased. Forgive my use of quotation marks.)

He did not ask for any money himself, either for the speaking engagement or for the books. He just asked that we send something (no specified amount) to CAI if we managed to sell the hardbacks, which he took the time to autograph before he left. This does not sound to me like someone who is profiteering from the books. He didn’t come down in a private jet; he drove an old pickup truck. He didn’t stay in a fancy hotel, either. In fact, that’s the next part of the story…

After Greg’s talk, my wife and I offered to take he and his assistant out to dinner. At first, Greg demurred, but his assistant asked when he had last eaten, and he couldn’t remember, so we insisted. We took him to Bridge Creek restaurant, where co-owner Dennis Christ wouldn’t accept any money. By the time we finished up, it was after 10:00 p.m., and we invited Greg to crash at our house. He wanted to drive home, but he hadn’t slept the night before, and we all thought it was a bad idea for him to drive.

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea

Greg and I talked until 3:00 in the morning. We compared notes on publishers and book signing experiences. For a man who was number one on the New York Times bestseller list, he knew surprisingly little about book publishing. His co-author, David Relin, did all of the heavy lifting on the book deals. Greg told me that the two of them had different goals on the book. For Greg, the purpose of the book was to raise awareness about CAI and their efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For David, the book was the goal. He’s a writer; that’s his job.

I can absolutely believe the allegations 60 Minutes made about incomplete expense reports and poor documentation of Greg Mortenson’s trips. For all of his amazing focus, Greg is the archetypical absentminded professor. He can’t remember when he ate or slept last, and I somehow doubt he kept a meticulously-organized file of receipts. His sister told us that he’s very innocent and very easy to take advantage of. As an introvert, he’s uncomfortable being in the public eye, and his shyness can come across as evasiveness.

In my personal opinion, based on meeting him and some of his family, I believe that Greg Mortenson is an honorable and genuine man. He is not a slick publicity hound. He is not a smooth and polished public speaker. But he is a man with a mission, and he believes strongly in what he’s doing.

If the goal of Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes is to take down Central Asia Institute and stop Greg Mortenson from building schools, then I hope they fail. Thousands of children will have better lives thanks to Greg and his compatriots. How many of us can leave behind a legacy like that?

About Gary D. Robson

Gary Robson: Author, tea guy, and owner of Phoenix Pearl Tea. I've written books and articles on a zillion different subjects, but everyone knows me for my "Who Pooped in the Park?" books.

Posted on 7 June 2011, in Blog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. The other day I was kidnapped by the Taliban while hiking a mountain range here in Flagstaff .I know they were Taliban as one was wearing a scarf and his companion appeared somewhat mideastern . ( quite tanned ) I was very tired .They nursured me back to health
    at a local Star Bucks. I promised them that I would return and build them a school for abused playboy bunnies . I was enthusiastic that I had found meaning. I’m off to visit Mother Teresa .

  2. So far, I have received over 20 comments on this article from “t he true story” a.k.a. “Wade” a.k.a. “Susan.” You’ve made a lot of points, some of them most likely valid, but I’m not going to turn my blog into your personal soapbox. I’ve removed the comments containing your phone number and address. Like you, I have my own interpretation of what’s going on. Unlike you, I am willing to keep an open mind.

    On one hand, you are criticizing Greg Mortenson for not having written the books himself. On the other, you’re castigating him for having inaccurate information in them. You simply can’t have it both ways. I think I’ve said all I have to say — at least until more information comes to light.

  3. t he true story

    Susan , You have a point that Gary responds in a gentlemanly manner ….Iv read his writings as well. He is articulate and well researches his subjects .I know my subject with respect to the Greg Mortenson story …I mean no disrespect

  4. Gary ~ Do Montanans have to be especially thick skinned? πŸ™‚

    I’ve never been to your great state, but I can tell from your gentlemanly reply to Mr. Story that the population must be fine folk. Keep the faith ~ Susan Hale Whitmore, Silver Spring, Md.

    P.S. Thanks for steering me to your published works ~ a wonderful array of subject matter!

    • Thank you, Susan!

      Writers definitely need to be thick-skinned! We learn that lesson every time we send our work to an editor, proofreader, fact-checker, or copyeditor.

      I certainly agree with you that Montanans (for the most part) are fine folks. Come on out and see us sometime. In my humble opinion, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

  5. Gary ~ Do Montanans have to be especially thick-skinned to survive? πŸ™‚
    I’ve never visited your beautiful state, but the gentlemanly response you’ve given Mr. Story tells me that the population is made up of fine folk! Keep the faith ~ Susan Hale Whitmore, Silver Spring, Md.

    P.S. I’ve now looked at all of your publications ~ thanks for steering me!

  6. t he true story

    A last thought .”I think your credibilty is blown ” I could care less folks take seriously what I think .or that I pulled a Greg Mortenson and made up out of whole cloth a bunch of stories ..But their is a difference .People believed in this guy .I believed in him .Thousands of chidren believed him and donated hard earned money,We did our homework to take this con man down .60 minutes did give his scam a push in terms of discovery ,but you may want to do your home work..His lies were on the radar of virtualy every charity watch dog . You see Gary, this is the worst type of scam artist .They believe their own lies and take on a persona(old pick up truck) ,cant find my shoes etc… People want to believe in the good that a child begged for a school.when brick and mortar wasnt the problem .The need was for teachers and medicine.(there was ample brick and mortar).Not very sexy,and doesnt make for good copy that teachers be paid and students be provided the material they require, No money in that ….The record speaks for itself .You need only examine the tax filings that the institute was used as a personal biggy bank…This isnt a debate,its a fact and when deposed under oath Greg will stop throwing tantrums and make a deal.and it wont be for another book,,,,hope you understand my ramblings ….

  7. t he true story

    Greg will be deposed soon..He is being sued by three separate groups and under investigation by the secret service the state attorney general and the IRS..By the way.,through his spokesman Greg says he is going to set the record straight on his “collection of lies ” , once released from the hospital .Why are many of us so pissed? We were hoodwinked..Veterans who wanted to believe that peace be won by building schools and educating children. We didnt rush to judgement resultant a 60 minute hit piece….This has been a long time coming,. In due time eyes will be opened .Greg is a product of a celebrity culture, an aw shucks goof who stumbled his way to fortune …Rarely do we hear about the people who are truly making a difference in the world .They dont write about their twenty hour days,they live them.(can you take my prose seriously?)

  8. t he true story

    I dont care what you think or believe ,Yes there is a personal venteeta. We served honorably and this guy writes books(that he didnt write) and sits behind a desk with a shit eating grin .and now we find out who he really is(pull the tax retrurns) ..why not talk to 60 minutes and explain his book?….. describes a visit to Mother Teresa three years after her death,and I am an xMarine combat veteran,and thats my personal ventatta (bad syntax?) you dont like my prose ,,,,screw you….you did write a very good and thoughtful essay on medical maijana but your defensive of this asshoe is indefensible

  9. t he true story

    This is fun . Greg is sued that he is found out the charlatan he is and you discover my lies that I a single person.. he he… life in this country is fun . Little boys and girls grip their pennies in hand waiting for the great white hope to save little people a half a world away ,he flys in a private jet ,stays in a five star hotels (I know , the old pick up truck )chats up he really a neat guy and takes a few photos and pockets the majority of the donation ) Check it out ..Hope my cyntax adaqate? ….ha ha; the joke is on us all ,,,,but the attorney genera,l the IRS(read all about it ). . and the secret service are a bit upset

  10. After reading the last comment, I was tempted to delete all of the comments by Wade and Susan (whom I suspected were the same person because of the writing style), but I decided to leave them in place. This is a great example of what happens when somebody has a personal agenda — perhaps even a personal vendetta. After making up two different personas and telling a collection of lies, we’re suddenly supposed to believe “the true story” because s/he came clean on Wade and Susan.

    I think your credibility is blown.

    • t he true story

      ” Telling a collection of lies ” Well, la de da . Your finally getting it . Do your home work.

  11. t he true story

    Gary, to your credit you didnt bite. There is no Wade or Susan .We have known him his entire life .Greg makes things up and did not write or co author a single word in Three Cups Of Tea …Yes he is shy and appears baseful and inarticulate,but does know what he is doing .You were taken in as we have all for years .His story is coming to an end ,as all stories do .Pehaps one day you may write the Greg Mortenson story .Do your research . You are an articulate writer …

  12. I so me the sorry my sistere s saying about the=Greg not he very goo9d with the girls he feed to us and we and give him things also but is hard sometimes what he want s from all of we …but what does concern to me is the fed announcing that they will no longer be purchaing treasuries ,The chinese are dumping short and long term debt suggesting the U,,S playing with fire flirting with default, Rating agencies saber rattling the 10 year bond be downgraded to junk. Who would have dreamed ? The dollar has suffered loss compared to the euro 300 basis points in the last six months sending the cost of inports rising expodentialy. My sister was laughing the other day that George Soros short the dollar the British pound theft seem like a walk in the park . Your congress is incapable of regulatinng derivaties , and the world suffers a double dip recession. You people bomb the shit out of us our civilans die and you invade our counrty that you kill a phanton terroist you suggest you upset that your foreign aid misusued and send us a great white hope. but greg very goodth man and do very good thhe help for us plaease if he need the help cauaese he have the problem with the leg give to him , he alwayss ask for money so I think he need the mony good man and give the girls here the monies and help us to get the food we neeed to for eat and build a school for us we like your the story he do the eat with you he really must have be of fun,he eat good with us . help us little people we poor and the stupid we ask little girl wh y she ask this ameican to build school and she say she ask a him for a medication he say he a nurssse but buid schoo; but she say still need meidiccine ….he nice man but bringmuch soldiers with him and no teacher,he smile very much we like =he wear are dress and come back alwys with a litle bit of monies he leave very fast after say hello

  13. @shwco: Just click “About” at the top of this page! And thank you for your comments!

  14. Gary, my punctation is lazy …I should have never refered to folks as liars….Ive not walked in his shoes ..There are two sides to every story indeed ….perhaps we should stick to our individual stories….life is difficult enough that we spend time judging ….but thank you for your reply ….would like to read some of your work ,,,,It does appear folks are rushing to judgement ….. i cant balance my check book and as I read the Greg Mortenson story ….he has a hard time finding his shoes ,,,,dosent make him a bad guy does it ?

  15. Mr. Robson, I’m beginning to think YOU should be a published writer. (Are you? I’ll have to check onlline πŸ™‚

    Your 6/12 comment is succinct, direct, fair-minded, and above all a model of clarity.

    I nominate it for placement on EVERY SINGLE posting on this subject since 4/17 as an exemplar of sensitivty and sensibleness.

    (As we used to say in Rhode Island, “Youse done real gud!”)

  16. I think you hit the nail on the head in that last comment, Wade. There are two sides to every story, and it sounds like this one has even more than two. But every side agrees that he built a bunch of schools and educated a bunch of kids.

    The reason I used the term “incoherent ramblings” is that you started out by calling Mortenson a “lair” and your comments have basically random punctuation and capitalization. I find it hard to take things seriously when they’re written like that. But you appear to have done some homework, and I mean no personal insult.

  17. Gary ….I meant no disrespect,,,,last email …I dont know what the true story of Greg Mortenson is …..and really dont care ……we are all doing our best and if Greg built a single school he did his best ….. I own a conference and retreat center here in Flagstsaff,,,you write and sell books,,,, and life goes on…… cheers

  18. Your points are well taken ,,,But incoherent ramblings? No, Ive investigated his tax filings and read his books …that you insult me is fine, but the facts are the facts ….Im an ex Marine watched this same thing happen while serving in Vietnam.. nation building etc ……Id love to sit down and have a chat with Greg as you had ……ask a few questions, and it is a good discussion, that you begin it,,,, is to your credit …Perhaps our nature is to see the negative … we shall see ..

  19. So, Wade. Did you actually investigate any of this information, or are you simply picking sides blindly? How would you feel if some TV reporter crashed your event and tried to embarrass you in front of people? You may have lying eyes, but it sounds like you’re shooting from the hip here.

    I have no reason to believe that Krakauer is any more or less reliable than Mortenson. If you look at the records, 60 Minutes has used fabricated documents before, so I don’t necessarily trust them, either.

    But at least I have some personal information to contribute here. You just have some incoherent ramblings based entirely on watching a single “hit piece” on 60 Minutes. Please come back when you have something useful to contribute to the discussion.

  20. This is nonsense ….this guy is clearly a lair .How does one visit mother Teresa three years after her death? Suggest he kidnapped by nonexistent Tailban …fail to provide pubic financials, pack his three member board including himself with cronies fly private jets ….and with a straight face tell a tail that the folks he has maligned simply cant tell time ….60 mInutes asked him to answer a few questions ….he ducked out the back door …its on the record….. Cant believe my lying eyes .

  21. Thanks for speaking out, Gary.
    I’m so glad to finally hear someone who still feels about Greg Mortenson (and the attacks by 60 Minutes and Krakauer) as I do.

  22. Thanks for your feedback!

    Richard, I can’t disagree with the facts of the 60 Minutes piece because I wasn’t there. I don’t know whether Krakauer interviewed the same people Mortenson worked with. In this blog post, I’m merely stating my impressions; my feelings. I have read all of the response documents on CAI’s website (follow the link in the main blog post), and I’d encourage you to do the same.

    I will not blindly accept the account in Three Cups of Tea, as I haven’t met David Relin, who did the actual writing, and I wasn’t there firsthand. At the same time, I will not blindly accept the word of Jon Krakauer either. For the moment, I will go with what my gut tells me.

  23. Miriam Cunningham

    Thanks for your insights.

  24. Gary ~ I know booksellers to be honest, caring, and interesting folk (having worked in a college bookstore, a city paperback shop, a political one, and the legendary Savile Bookshop in DC). You sure sound that way! Thank you for a lovely and detailed account of your crossing paths with Mr. Mortenson. The more I read by those who KNOW HIM ~ whether long- or short-term ~ the more I feel absolutely certain of his honesty and generosity. You have done a public service.

  25. Richard Hufford

    Gary, I don’t see that you’re actually disagreeing with the 60 Minutes piece, here. What I remember (and it’s been a couple of months and I am not familiar with Greg Mortenson and CAI) is that no one disagreed that Mortenson does good. The argument I remember is that his anecdotes are not true. I think one of Krakauer’s key statements was that with all the good Greg Mortenson and CAI do, why can’t he tell true anecdotes? His work would be every bit as good if it was based on the truth.
    As far as his accounting goes, I didn’t find that part of the story interesting, because that’s just run of the mill material for 60 Minutes.

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