HELENA, Mont. – “Three Cups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson, who has spent four years weathering accusations that his bestselling book contained fabrications and that he mismanaged the charity he co-founded, will retire in January, Central Asia Institute officials said Thursday.
The announcement comes as the Bozeman, Montana-based charity works to turn around five years of declining donations and refocus its mission from building schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Mortenson co-founded the non-profit organization in 1996.
It was Mortenson’s decision to retire as a Central Asia Institute employee and to resign his position as a non-voting member of its board, chairman Steve Bennett and executive director Jim Thaden said.
“He’s travelled overseas extensively for 20 years,” Barrett said. “It’s time for him to give himself a rest, make time for his family and do other things.”
Mortenson was travelling Thursday and did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He said in a 2014 interview with The Associated Press that he would leave the organization if he were ever a liability, but Thaden and Barrett insisted that was not the reason for his resignation.
“It’s a good place. It’s 20 years, and there’s a certain resonance with 20 years,” Barrett said.
In 2011, “60 Minutes” and author Jon Krakauer, who wrote the nonfiction bestseller “Into the Wild,” broadcast and published reports that Mortenson had made up many of the events in “Three Cups of Tea,” which told the story of how Mortenson decided to build schools in Pakistan after becoming lost during a mountaineering expedition.
The reports also accused Mortenson of using the charity to enrich himself and promote his books without sharing the royalties or speaking fees, leading to an investigation by the Montana attorney general’s office.
A 2012 settlement restructured the Central Asia Institute, removed Mortenson as a voting board member and stripped him of any financial oversight. Since then, he has continued to be a full-time employee of Central Asia Institute, earning nearly $194,000 last year in salary and benefits.
Mortenson plans to continue to support girls’ education, to write more and to focus on issues such as infant mortality, child marriage and violence against women, Central Asia Institute officials said. He agreed to consult with the charity for its overseas programs occasionally, Barrett and Thaden added.
“If a circumstance arises where we think it will be valuable to work with him, we will call him and see if he is available,” Barrett said.
Following the accusations against Mortenson, contributions to Central Asia Institute have plummeted from $22.8 million in 2010 to $2.2 million in 2014. Its total assets have dropped from $25.7 million in 2011 to $18.7 million last year.
Thaden said donations have increased this year and the organization has shifted its mission from building schools to developmental programs geared toward vocational training, university assistance and ensuring girls complete high school.
Barrett added that Central Asia Institute is in a good place after a difficult period.
“We’re focusing on the future, not on the past, and we’re making tremendous efforts,” he said.
Some of Mortenson’s harshest critics had mixed reactions to his planned resignation. CharityWatch president Daniel Borochoff said it was a step in the right direction but that it is important for Central Asia Institute to replace him with somebody who is an expert or an authority in international education.
Krakauer called the resignation a positive development that is more than four years overdue, but he questioned the group’s decision to keep Mortenson as a consultant.
“I am concerned CAI apparently does not intend to sever all ties with Mortenson, which suggests that the board still doesn’t comprehend the harm Mortenson has done,” Krakauer said in an email to the AP.