HELENA, Mont. -- After making a $1 million deal to settle allegations that he misused his charity’s money and resources, author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson now must face accusations that he fabricated parts of his best-selling 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—filed by two California residents, a Montana man and an Illinois woman who bought the books—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.
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.
"The enterprise’s fraudulent scheme was to make Mortenson into a false hero, to sell books representing to contain true events, when they were false, to defraud millions of unsuspecting purchasers out of the purchase price of the books and to raise millions of dollars in charitable donations for CAI," their lawsuit alleges.
The claims cite a laundry list of alleged fabrications. They include Mortenson’s recollections about holding Mother Teresa’s hand while her body was lying in state in 2000, when Mother Teresa actually died three years earlier.
Also noted was Mortenson’s account that he wandered lost into the village of Korphe after trying to climb the world’s second-highest peak, then decided to build a school there. His previous writings made no mention of his being lost or wandering into Korphe, and he also previously indicated that he originally planned to build that first school in another village.
Those and several other 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.
One of the lawyers in the case is Larry Drury, who also represented plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against James Frey, who admitted on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" that he lied in his memoir "A Million Little Pieces."
That lawsuit ended in a settlement that offered refunds to buyers of the book.
Drury and fellow plaintiffs’ attorney Alexander Blewett say the Mortenson and Frey cases "are stunningly close."
Mortenson and Penguin don’t argue that the events in the books are true, though the publisher says that nobody can rely on the truth or accuracy of autobiographies because they are based on the authors’ own recollections.
Both Mortenson and Penguin argue that the plaintiffs can’t prove that they were actually injured by anything that was written in the books and that this lawsuit amounts to a threat to free speech.
Mortenson attorney John Kauffman says in his court filing that such lawsuits could be filed only to discourage certain authors from writing about topics and it would stifle the free exchange of ideas.
Penguin attorney F. Matthew Ralph says that if a publisher were required to guarantee the truth and accuracy of everything an author says, the costs of publishing books would be prohibitive.
"No standards exist for drawing the line where ‘fiction’ becomes ‘nonfiction’ or vice versa; and the courts are not a proper place for developing such standards or policing that line," Ralph wrote.