An Update On The 'Three Cups Of Tea' Lawsuit

Millions of people bought Greg Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea about his work building schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many gave money to his charity. Then, earlier this year, a 60 Minutes investigation charged that Mortenson fabricated key parts of his story — and used funds from the charity for himself. Now a group of readers in Mortenson's home state of Montana is suing him for fraud. Melissa Block speaks with court reporter Gwen Florio of the Missoulian about the current state of the Three Cups of Tea lawsuit.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Millions of people bought Greg Mortenson's book "Three Cups of Tea," about his work building schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And readers donated millions to his charity. Then, earlier this year, a "60 Minutes" investigation charged that Mortenson fabricated key parts of his story, and used funds from that charity for himself. He denies those claims. Well, now, a group of readers is suing him for fraud. They're bringing a class-action lawsuit in Montana, where Mortenson lives.

And Gwen Florio has been covering the case for the Missoulian newspaper. I asked her to explain the plaintiffs' argument.

GWEN FLORIO: They were saying that because parts of the book are false, that people who bought the book basically did so under false pretenses. What they were reading is not what actually happened; therefore, they should be reimbursed the money they paid for the books.

BLOCK: And they are filing as a class-action.

FLORIO: Yes.

BLOCK: What are they saying the class represents?

FLORIO: Everyone who bought the book, which estimates vary between 4 million and 5 million people who bought either "Three Cups of Tea" or "Stones Into Schools."

BLOCK: Now, here's one interesting twist here. One of those 4 or 5 million people who bought the book turns out to have been the federal judge who was originally hearing this case, Donald Molloy. He's now recused himself.

FLORIO: He has. Not only did he buy the book, he went to a lecture by Mortenson, at the University of Montana, four years ago. And not only did he buy the book and read at least parts of it, so did members of his family. And they all talked about it among themselves. And they would be part of the class affected. So here he is, you know, theoretically presiding over a case that affects his own family, which you're not supposed to do.

BLOCK: Gwen, when you talk to lawyers there, are there people who think that there is a reasonable basis for this suit to go forward? It does seem like they're launching pretty novel claims here. Or do they assume that it will be dismissed?

FLORIO: I don't think anybody is making any assumptions at this point. Not in conjunction with this but sort of on a parallel track, the state attorney general's office has also launched a civil investigation into this. So it seems as though some sort of legal action will go forward.

BLOCK: And what does Greg Mortenson have to say about that; any response from him?

FLORIO: Greg Mortenson has been silent on this. He did not come to the court hearing two weeks ago in Missoula. His schedule on his website has been unavailable for appearances. He has been recovering from heart surgery he had back in June. So he's just a no-show.

BLOCK: When you've talked to the people who are bringing this lawsuit against Greg Mortenson and his product, "Three Cups of Tea," what did they tell you about why they've taken this step - gone so far as to actually make a legal case out of this?

FLORIO: I think it has to do with a sense of betrayal, that here is this book that, again, was so widely read that so many people donated money in Montana and elsewhere. You know, kids donated Pennies for Peace, that were all to go to the charity. And that seems to be the sense that permeates all of these filings.

BLOCK: Is anybody there in Montana saying this is just a case of lawsuits gone wildly awry; that this should not be settled in a court, that if they felt bad about buying the book or giving their money, that's one thing, but this is not the basis of a class-action lawsuit?

FLORIO: Sure, I think people say that - yeah, exactly; this is not the way to settle it, that he's been discredited, people will no longer buy the book; things sort of play out in the marketplace.

BLOCK: Gwen Florio covers courts for the Missoulian newspaper in Montana. Gwen, thanks very much.

FLORIO: Thank you.

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GUY RAZ, host: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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