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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Legislators Sue Activist They Say Is a Fraud

(CN) - Two Montana legislators filed a class-action lawsuit against author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson, claiming fabrications in two of his New York Times bestsellers inspired them to buy his books and donate money to his nonprofit.

Mortenson co-founded the Bozeman, Mont.-based Central Asia Institute (CAI) in 1996 to provide community-based education and literacy programs for girls in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The former mountaineer took to philanthropy in the 1990s, gaining international acclaim for his humanitarian work and his memoirs. Mortenson's reputation was called into question this past April, however, when author Jon Krakauer brought allegations of misrepresentations in Mortenson's books to light on the news program "60 Minutes."

Spurred by these accusations, Montana House Reps. Michele Reinhart (D-Billings) and Jean Price (D-Great Falls), filed suit. They say Mortenson's books, "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones into School: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, In Afghanistan and Pakistan," contain "numerous fabrications" that were allegedly reinforced through public statements, "in an effort to entice people to buy his two books, pay him speaking fees and donate to CAI."

The federal lawsuit seeks punitive damages as well as reimbursement for the cost of the book, "Three Cups of Tea," which Reinhart bought in 2009, and for two separate monetary donations Price made to CAI.

Reinhart and Price say they belong to a class of tens of thousands, duped into buying books and donating money.

Since CAI solicited a donation from Price via U.S. Mail, the legislators seek to hold Mortenson and his foundation liable for racketeering and mail fraud.

"Mortenson, an individual, and CAI, a corporation, acted as an enterprise which affected interstate commerce," the nine-page lawsuit states. "They acted in a pattern of continual fraud over many years in using the false public statements and the false statements in the books to obtain money by false pretenses."

The complaint calls for the court to create a constructive trust that uses all revenue from Mortenson's books, which sold over four million copies, and speaking engagements to fulfill his promise to build the schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mortenson also founded the educational charity Pennies for Peace, an international service-learning program sponsored by CAI that helps increase American children's awareness of the world and how they can make a difference.

The idea behind Pennies for Peace came from a small fundraising drive called Pennies for Pakistan, which two Wisconsin elementary school teachers ran in 1995 after they felt inspired by a talk Mortenson gave on the difficult conditions he witnessed for children in Pakistan. The aim of the project, as described on CAI's website, was to collect pennies and send them to central Asia where they go much further than they do in the United States and can even help to build entire communities there.

After adopting the idea, Mortenson created Pennies for Peace, which is registered in 4,800 schools across the United States and has, to date, raised over 30 million pennies, or over $3 million, to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Reinhart and Price are represented by Alexander Blewett of Hoyt & Blewett in Great Falls, Mont.

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