EDITOR'S NOTE: Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock will announce the findings of his investigation into Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute during a press conference call at 11 a.m. MST Thursday, April 5. @AlexHeard will tweet live during the event.
ON JANUARY 20, in a conference room at the Sonnenalp Resort in Vail, Colorado, a significant encounter took place, and it seemed like an unmistakable sign that the case against Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute (CAI) is ramping up.
Representatives from CAI were in town to make a rare public appearance, one they hoped would be limited to discussion of the organization’s core mission: building schools in Central Asia. Mortenson and CAI, of course, are currently the focus of two major investigations—a civil suit alleging consumer fraud, and a probe by Montana’s attorney general into claims of mismanagement of a nonprofit—so it seemed likely that the controversy might be on the minds of some in the audience. To put it mildly, that turned out to be the case.
Two people were there representing CAI: Karin Ronnow, the group’s communications director and a former reporter at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and photographer Ellen Jaskol. Together they staged a 90-minute talk, accompanied by roughly 200 photographs showing CAI schools, students, and personnel in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. Notably, Mortenson didn’t appear to be in any of them.
Also present was Jon Krakauer, the journalist who put CAI in its current world of hurt. Last April, Krakauer published “Three Cups of Deceit,” a long exposé, released by Byliner, that accused Mortenson of rampant fabrications in his two best-known books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools. Krakauer also cited evidence of potentially criminal financial mismanagement by Mortenson, and his report, along with a 60 Minutes segment that preceded it with similar claims, prompted the legal action.
On April 19, Montana attorney general Steve Bullock announced that his office would look into whether Mortenson and other CAI officials had violated state laws covering the operation of nonprofits. On May 5, two plaintiffs from Montana filed a civil suit against Mortenson and CAI in U.S. District Court, charging fraud, deceit, breach of contract, racketeering, and “unjust enrichment” based on alleged fabrications in the books.
After the presentation in Vail, Ronnow fielded questions but declined to answer any that touched on legal issues, saying, “Lawyers have advised all of us who work with CAI not to comment. I can say that… What can I say? It’s a frustrating situation.” She added: “My job is to focus on the work that goes on overseas, because the work continues. The specifics—they are allegations, they are accusations, and Greg will respond.” Asked about CAI’s fundraising total for 2011, Ronnow said it was “significantly lower” than in previous years but didn’t provide figures.
Krakauer sat through all of this quietly. But when the talk ended and the crowd began to disperse, he stuck around, introducing himself first to Jaskol and then to Ronnow, who clearly was startled to find herself talking to him. I wasn’t there, but according to someone who was in the room, Krakauer and Ronnow had a tense conversation that began when Krakauer tried to get clarification about an inaccurate report in the Vail Daily newspaper, which had written that Mortenson was “no longer with” CAI. This exchange followed: