Periodically I check if authors whose writing I like have anything new out that I haven’t read. One of the authors whose work I enjoy very much is Jon Krakauer. All his books are good in my opinion but my favourite is Into Thin Air – if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. I found an extended essay of his called Three Cups of Deceit which I hadn’t yet read – it was first published on byliner.com in 2011 (I never claimed to be up-to-date!) but last year it was brought out in ebook form. I downloaded the ebook and read it in one sitting.
It’s a critique of Greg Mortenson, the man who provided the material for the books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. For Three Cups of Tea, the writer who did the leg work in terms of putting Greg’s words into publishable form, David Oliver Relin, sadly committed suicide in November 2012. The controversy over the book he authored had negatively impacted his life, career and livelihood, although we don’t know if that was the reason his took his life. Mr. Relin was only 49 years old and leaves behind a family – my sincere condolences go out to them.
After the publication of Three Cups of Deceit and the airing of a 60 Minutes piece on Greg Mortenson, criminal investigations started. Mortenson had founded (with a bequest from Jean Hoerni) a charity called the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and was the organization’s executive director. As a result of a settlement with the Attorney General of Montana’s office, Mortenson resigned as CAI’s executive director and was no longer allowed to be a voting member of the board. He was also required to repay $1 million to CAI.
After finishing Three Cups of Deceit I turned to Gingerheaddad and commented that Greg Mortenson reminded me strongly of Gary James. I hadn’t intended on writing a blog post drawing parallels between the two, but then a few nights ago Gary started to again ask for cash donations from followers of his Facebook page. The outcome has been predictable if you are familiar with his past activities – guilt trips, intimidation, questions from others which are responded to at first with hostility and then with outright banning.
I invite you to consider Krakauer’s criticisms of Mortenson and see how closely they mirror the actions of Gary James.
Lies, damned lies
In Three Cups of Deceit, Krakauer outlines several instances of Greg Mortenson either embroidering the truth or completely making things up. Three Cups of Tea tells how Greg, after an unsuccessful bid to climb K2, loses his way as he trudges down the mountain and finds himself in the village of Korphe. Cared for by the villagers and shocked to discover that the children have no school, Greg promises to return and build one. There’s even a special needs relative who serves as his inspiration – Greg’s sister, who died of a massive epileptic seizure at the age of 23. The book goes on to tell of Greg’s exploits in Pakistan and Afghanistan, building schools for needy children. At one point he is even kidnapped by the Taliban.
The problem is that the ‘creation myth’ as Krakauer terms it and the Taliban ‘kidnapping’ are simply not true:
“It turns out that Mortenson’s books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem. Mortenson has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built.” Three Cups of Deceit, p. 19
Gary James has consistently misrepresented both his past and his achievements with A4cwsn. Go visit FourMonkeys4Me for a round-up of some of the misrepresentations. If you believe that Gary worked for Rolling Stone in Marketing, was a star athlete who came to the U.S. to compete in the Olympics, is a wonderful family man… check Google and publicly available court records. In September 2011, Mr. James told myself and a few others that he had 3 to 6 months to live. Given that it’s now January 2013 and he’s still with us, clearly his assertion that he would soon be dead from terminal cancer was a lie. If you believe that A4cwsn “put 200+ iPads in the hands of children with special needs” as his website currently states, ask the individuals and organizations who donated their own iDevices directly to others, or ask Gary whether iPads were really given in all 50 states as Mr. James claims, or even if all the people who have received iDevices were children with special needs.
Last week Gary shared this random fact with his followers:
Maybe this is true; I have no idea. R. Kelly married Andrea Kelly in 1996 but perhaps Gary just mis-remembered the year. In his autobiography, Soulacoaster, Mr. Kelly says he got married in Denver but that’s close to Colorado Springs so again, it could be true.
Even if it is true that Mr. James, as part of his training to be a butler, was in charge of Mr. Kelly’s wedding ceremony and reception, I have to wonder why it’s relevant. It certainly comes across as yet another example of the “insatiable hunger for esteem” that Krakauer saw in Greg Mortenson.
A lack of accountability
Chapter II of Three Cups of Deceit is entitled ‘Accountable to No-One’. One of the constant refrains in the book, heard from friends, former CAI board members, even the former CFO of CAI, is how Greg Mortenson consistently refused to be accountable with respect to how funds were spent. CAI is a 501(c)(3) organization but that was no protection for the donors in this case as Mr. Mortenson flouted acceptable business practices, ethics and the law. In her memo to the Board explaining her resignation, former CFO Deborah Raynor had this to say:
“Since the start of my employment, Mr. Mortenson has spent over $100,000 on CAI’s credit cards. Mr. Mortenson has never provided any receipts for these expenses, and repeatedly ignored my requests for their submission… Mr. Mortenson has refused to submit even one travel voucher.” Three Cups of Deceit, p. 53
My issues with respect to A4CWSN are centred precisely around this very issue: accountability. Let’s be clear here, A4CWSN is not a charity. As Gary James has often stated, it is a business. There is an entity, Very Special People (VSP), that Mr. James created with the intention of setting up a charity. My understanding is that VSP, according to publicly available records, is currently able to receive funds but does not yet have 501(c)(3) status so any contributions to that organization are currently not tax deductible.
Mr. James has consistently refused to be accountable to anyone for how funds given to him are disbursed. He bases this on the fact that A4CWSN is a business and therefore he is not required to be accountable to anyone. Yet he has used A4CWSN to solicit gifts and donations before and now he is doing it again. Last week he posted the following:
The Chip In event was held on Saturday and raised a couple of thousand dollars. Some points for you to mull over:
- If A4CWSN is a business, why is it soliciting donations? Shouldn’t that be done by VSP?
- The board of VSP consists of Mr. James, together with his wife and brother. If you do donate to VSP, please be aware that the board members are not in an arms-length relationship with Mr. James are therefore highly unlikely to hold his feet to the fire. After having read the details of Greg Mortenson’s financial transgressions while at CAI which was and is a 501(c)(3) organization, I strongly advise against donating to VSP even if it does get tax-exempt status. The protections of that status are simply insufficient in my view.
- Mr. James may reiterate as often as he likes that he is not accountable to the people who donate money to his causes but he is accountable to the IRS. I hope they are requesting documentation of his business income and expenditure.
- Note that a sole proprietorship, for U.S. federal tax purposes, has to be profitable in order to maintain its status as a business. If a business consistently records tax losses then the IRS will view it as a hobby and its losses will no longer be tax deductible (see section 183 of the Internal Revenue Code). If A4CWSN is performing as badly as Mr. James consistently implies it is in his frequent proclamations of poverty, then he may find out that his losses are disallowed for tax purposes.
Everything can be justified when the cause is noble
Apparently one of Greg Mortenson’s heroes is Mother Teresa. In response to the criticism of her that came from Christopher Hitchens and others (regarding the poor medical care afforded to those who came to her as well as the dubious sources of many donations to her order) Krakauer quotes from Three Cups of Tea:
“Mortenson had heard the criticism of the woman…He’d read her defence of her practice of taking donations from unsavory sources like drug dealers, corporate criminals, and corrupt politicians hoping to purchase their own path to salvation. After his own struggle to raise funds for the children of Pakistan, he felt he understood what had driven her to famously dismiss her critics by saying, “I don’t care where the money comes from. It’s all washed clean in the service of God.” Three Cups of Deceit, pp. 40-41
Krakauer doesn’t dispute the fact that CAI has built schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan but he felt that Mortenson’s lies undermined his credibility and trustworthiness, that the achievements he claimed for CAI were exaggerated and that there were irregularities in how Mortenson and CAI conducted their affairs. In response to Krakauer’s claims, many of Mortenson’s supporters felt bound to still extol CAI’s achievements. Marjorie Kehe wrote in the Christian Science Monitor:
“Even by Krakauer’s admission, Mortenson has “established dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that benefited tens of thousands [of] children, a significant percentage of them girls.”
Most of us, if we had established one such school – or even played a part in doing so – might feel that we had justified our very existences by that act.”
But even she included some important caveats in her article:
” Believe me, I’m not excusing any lies that Mortenson may have told. If he is guilty of even a fraction of the deceit that he’s been charged with then that’s a very sad thing and his culpability is huge.
And neither am I going to argue that it’s okay to lie if it’s done in support of noble goals. It’s not.
… I’m not saying that [building schools] makes any wrongs he has committed right. It doesn’t. But it certainly ought to be weighed in the balance.”
Many of Gary James’ followers, including some app developers, have argued that they continue to support A4CWSN because it’s gifting iPads to special needs children. No-one is disputing the fact that many special needs kids have received iOS devices because of A4CWSN and those of us who have seen the impact of those devices on our own children continue to fervently support this cause. The issue isn’t the cause and in my view, people who give Gary James money and carte blanche are simply using the cause as an excuse. The reasons I object to continued support for Gary James are as follows:
- There are above board 501(c)(3) organizations, like iTaalk, who you can donate money, as well as new or used devices to, in order to help kids who need them.
- Gary helps people who help him; he doesn’t base his decisions on either need or random luck. Those of us involved with selecting the 50 iPad recipients saw this in action, up close. Unless you were a huge supporter of A4CWSN you were simply not in the running to receive an iPad. Look at the people who have received iPads or other gifts from him (funded by the either the community or app developers) – VSP’s lawyer, one of his kid’s teachers, his graphic designer. Are you comfortable with the cronyism involved in this way of doing things? Do you give to others in expectation of something in return?
- His disdain for the concept of accountability with respect to other people’s money.
- His lack of professionalism as well as the bullying and intimidation he subjects others to.
Claims of impoverishment
In Three Cups of Deceit, Krakauer quotes from p. 295 of Three Cups of Tea which states that CAI finances at the time were rocky and so Greg Mortenson deferred the pay raise the board had approved for him, from $28,000 to $35,000. Krakauer then quoted publicly available financial information which showed that Mortenson was in fact receiving over $75,000 in annual compensation.
“What’s disturbing is not the amount that Mortenson was paid, but that he lied about it – and that dozens of such falsehoods are strewn throughout the book.” Three Cups of Deceit, p. 47
Here’s Gary, last Saturday:
We’ve heard this many times before of course. My recommendation for Gary would be – if he is still living paycheck to paycheck and still can’t meet his bills, sell the Connecticut mansion with the swimming pool and acres of land that he’s lived in for the past eight years or stop giving away money that he can’t afford and provide for his family instead.
Also, other than his son who he recently posted a picture of undergoing an EEG on the A4CWSN Facebook page, who are the “children with Special Needs” that Gary has (and is implying he needs to financially support)?
Difficult to work with
Krakauer’s picture of Mortenson is replete with instances of ignored emails and phone calls from donors as well as CAI board members and employees. His conduct with employees is reprehensible – playing mind games, testing loyalties and badmouthing about staff to other staff members.
I and others volunteered considerable amounts of time to help Gary with A4CWSN and can attest to the same pattern of behaviour in him. Emails and messages would go unanswered, he would rudely berate people and then see no reason to apologize as well as manipulate people and attempt to buy their loyalty and affection. We of course made excuses for his behaviour because we thought he was dying but the number of people who ‘used’ to be admins at A4CWSN continues to grow. This quote about Greg Mortenson from a former CAI employee could have been written by any one of us who used to volunteer to help Gary:
“Greg is always fucking with people. intentionally undermining them. That’s his management style. He does everything in his power to keep everyone off balance. He did not like people discovering things.” Three Cups of Deceit, p. 72
However, there is nothing in Three Cups of Deceit that would lead me to believe that Mortenson ever intimidated or criticised the people who donated money to CAI. In that respect, Gary seems to be one-of-a-kind. Here’s some quotes from Gary last Saturday, as he attempted to push, cajole, intimidate and guilt people into giving money to his Chip In (I’ve masked peoples’ names and pictures to protect their privacy):
“come on everyone, I am asking for your help”, “we can do this, lets go” “Lets go people” – remember, this money is being donated by special needs parents, not to a charity with oversights in place but directly into Gary’s bank account, and at this point $700 had been pulled together in less than an hour. I’d be thanking people but Gary prefers other tactics. As the hard push continued, the guilt-tripping also started:
At this stage people were starting to comment. Many special needs parents simply don’t have the money to give and they come to the A4CWSN Facebook page for moral support and help. Gary’s response to these objections was as follows:
Again, typical Gary – because you really could give the money, if you were prepared to make the sacrifices needed but if you don’t want to, well, feel free to leave the page. Oh and if you do unlike the page then you were only ever part of the community in order to get free stuff.
Understandably, a number of people objected to his characterization of them as selfish money-grubbers who just weren’t sufficiently committed to come up with a donation. Someone else might step back and apologize – but not Gary James! Gary’s response to people’s objections or questions is to tell people it’s their fault for misunderstanding him:
Attacking their credibility (or ignoring them, both work):
Being hostile towards them, if they say that they are going to spend money on their own child rather than help a grown adult buy an Apple MAC for their home business:
And my favourite tactic, because it really gets those bank accounts open – donning the mantle of victimhood. Nothing makes him feel better after all than donations:
Not that this was his final post for the night but then shutting up has never been Gary’s forte.
The chip in on Saturday was to benefit a graphic designer called Tracy Fernandez who, Gary states, is a single mother with a special needs child, has been doing voluntary work for A4CWSN and currently does her work on a rented computer. The funds raised are going to be used to buy her a new Apple MAC. I have no information on Ms. Fernandez, who certainly seems to do great design work but people continued to ask questions even after the chip in closed. Why was the chip in set up in Gary’s name rather than Tracy’s? Why did Gary not just pay Ms. Fernandez for the work she has done for A4?
Today the situation reached its logical conclusion – people continuing to ask questions will simply be banned from the page.
The irregularities that Jon Krakauer bought to light in relation to CAI and Greg Mortenson involved millions of dollars. In that case it still took over a year for the Montana Attorney General’s office to resolve the situation. Many of us made complaints to the Connecticut Attorney General’s office about a year ago, requesting them to look into A4CWSN’s fundraising activities. I suspect it will take a long time before that investigation is resolved but if anyone has concerns and hasn’t yet contacted the individual in charge of the investigation the file is still open and my previous posts in relation to A4CWSN contain the information you need to make a complaint.
The CAI story involved millions of dollars and A4CWSN is miniscule in comparison with only tens of thousands of dollars raised. But the money is being taken from special needs parents who can least afford to give it. For many of these individuals, $50 might as well be $500 or $5,000. Greg Mortenson’s dealings were documented and brought to light by a journalist and that resulted in action being taken by the authorities. What I want to know is, where is our Jon Krakauer? When is someone going to tell the A4CWSN story?