Three Cups of Deceit: A timely book review as we move into A4CWSN’s third year

Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer

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 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:

R. Kelly's wedding and Gary James

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.

Excerpt regarding wedding to Andrea from Soulacoaster by R. Kelly

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:

A4cwsn Chip in for Tracy Fernandez

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:

Gary James goes into debt to support A4cwsn?
Gary James claims he can't pay his bills

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):

Gary James pushing for donations to A4cwsn
Gary James pushing for donations to A4cwsn

“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:

Gary James guilts people into donating to A4cwsn
Gary James pushing for donations to A4cwsn
Gary James pushing for donations to A4cwsn

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:

Gary James uses guilt to get people to donate to A4cwsn
Gary James and A4cwsn
Gary James accuses A4 followers of being freeloaders

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:

Gary James accusing his A4cwsn followers of misunderstanding him

Attacking their credibility (or ignoring them, both work):

Gary James attacking a person's credibility

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:

Gary James' hostility to followers who question or criticize him

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:

Gary James of A4cwsn claiming victimhood
Gary James pushing for donations to A4cwsn
Gary James of A4cwsn claiming victimhood
Gary James of A4cwsn claiming victimhood
Gary James of A4cwsn claiming victimhood

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.

Gary James banning followers from A4cwsn for asking questions

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?


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17 Responses to Three Cups of Deceit: A timely book review as we move into A4CWSN’s third year

  1. Lisa January 9, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    An absolutely brilliant post. I’ve read it twice. I hope soon this situation will change but sadly Gary James will probably always attempt to manipulate the vulnerable.

  2. Cynthia January 9, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

    This needs to be exposed. It’s despicable that this man continues to operate unchecked except for a ragtag group of expatriate volunteers. I was raised to believe that good always triumphs. I want to know when that is going to happen. We have done our part. We have filed. We have followed the rules and the law. Where are the authorities? Where are the reporters that are always looking to help? Well? Where are they?

  3. Julie January 9, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

    Wow. Beautifully written.

  4. Mango's mum January 9, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

    Award winning, right there. When they turn this into a movie, I am soooo going to opening night. BRAVO, BRAVO!

  5. Eileen Horvath January 9, 2013 at 8:03 pm #

    I’m the Eileen that asked the question about funding. I’m still curious how a person who can’t meet their obligations can continue to fund a small business. A legit business needs cash to operate.

    I joined the A4 group to learn about apps that are out there for SN kids- I didn’t realize that there might be something dirty going on until the chip in started. The tone bothered me but, I brushed it off because it’s cyberspace.

    This posting certainly makes question the integrity of A4 and Gary. As a follow up, have you spoke with the Connecticut Attorney General about this situation?

    • OMum22 January 9, 2013 at 8:05 pm #

      Regarding our complaint, I emailed the investigator today and a friend also spoke to him on the phone. Things are moving forward… but slowly.

    • Jenn January 9, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

      I’ve wondered that myself. How can someone afford to give away nearly $1000 when they ‘cannot pay their own bills’? Then I remember, that’s how scammers do it.

  6. Diane January 9, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

    Wow! I clearly must have sucker written on forehead because I fell for both of these “campaigns,” but didn’t make the connection until now. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much self-reflection from anything I’ve ever read. This is so valuable, because, frankly, these people would be nothing without their enablers. Becoming a special needs family has definitely opened our hearts, but I do think that makes us more vulnerable. This should be required reading for all new families. Thanks again for the insight.

  7. Jenn January 9, 2013 at 10:06 pm #

    I haven’t been following the whole saga of A4 since I left. However, a few different people pointed out the ChipIn for the computer to me. All I can say about it is “Wow”. Valid concerns were brought up and once again, Gary shoved them out of the way. Because everything is always HIS way. One commenter even brought up that perhaps a cheaper computer could be bought for Tracey, one that would work just as well, and the remaining funds could be used to supply iPads. That is a valid idea, but NO. Gary couldn’t have that. I’ve never been more grateful I left that community. Between the iron-fist Gary rules with, to the fake friendships that happen there, to the blatant favoritism. So so so glad to be gone. I’ll do a happy dance when he’s brought out for the scoundrel he is.

  8. Mary January 9, 2013 at 11:30 pm #

    Very well written piece, I hope that a Jon Krakauer will show up and expose all the shady goings-on before more parents of Special Needs children are taken advantage of.

  9. Janelle January 10, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    Great post! I have been suspicious of Gary for quite some time & am glad to see this info!
    Another point: loading up an iPad with apps is not necessarily helpful for someone with special needs, since there is no attention paid to the person’s difficulties & what apps would be helpful or even usable. And if the iPad is to be used as a communication device, then a person needs an individualized assessment by an expert in alternative/augmentative communication in order to pick the correct device/program (there are many) & ensure the person can physically access the device and is trained on how to use it. If the device turns out to be an iPad, then it needs to only have that on it. Unfortunately many people end up with an expensive toy that is not being used to its learning & language potential.

    • OMum22 January 10, 2013 at 10:35 am #

      Janelle, thank you for making this point because it’s something that has bothered me also. He selects iPad recipients based on support rather than the needs of the child. An iPad doesn’t help every special needs child, sometimes they need other technology or other supports and services more. But Gary’s currency is iPads, it’s the cheapest way for him to buy affection, loyalty and adulation (especially when others are footing the bill).

  10. Tammy January 10, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Thank you for being so thorough. You have a knack for pointing out the facts with out letting emotions take over. I am waiting for the results of the investigation patiently. I pray that this all gets resolved soon. Every day this continues to go unresolved more people get hurt. This is a special community that will bounce back as long as we all stay united. That has always been our strongest weapon. History speaks for itself.

  11. Allison January 10, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    I thought I had read something in the past about Gary fro your blog…or maybe someone elses…I was supicious then and still suspicious…I had actually sent a private message to him on his “wish” FB site that I could help one of the wishes come true from something I had at home…still no answer or reply…which i find very odd, but makes even more sense now, since he doesn’t really want people to exchange items without “his” stamp on it….which is really too sad. I really appreaciate your blog and enlightenment into his practices…I guess as a parent of a SN child, you just glaze over the bad sometimes and just continue to HOPE someone is really genuine without an ulterior motive. Keep up the good work! And keep us posted!

  12. SuckerMomof4 January 10, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

    Yup, I feel like a huge freaking idiot! As well as reading this, I found through someone else’s page this bit of info. I thought I was helping out another single special needs mom…boy, looks like I have been wayyyyyyyyy duped! I even stuck up for something he posted, thinking foolishly that maybe it was just misread or taken out of context. 🙁 I also emailed him to try to help someone else with a possible wish, I had something that I thought someone would like…I will assume because it is not expensive or I am not an active ass kisser that I don’t count and my things aren’t good enough, never received an answer. Slap my rear and call me gullible! I will remember this though….fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me….

  13. Jason January 18, 2013 at 11:13 am #

    As always, brilliant work here. I certainly wish we had someone like Mr. Krakauer to blow this wide open for us, but in the meantime I suppose we all just need to raise our voices together and hope more and more people listen.

  14. Lesley February 9, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    I continue to follow his page in hopes that what I see is just someone who mismanages a charity, not someone who is an absolute fraud. His guilt trips and using a “charity” site for his own personal drama is getting old.

    I so wanted to believe in him.

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