(Adds comment from Central Asia Institute)
By Lori Grannis
MISSOULA, Mont., April 30 (Reuters) - A federal judge dismissed a class-action fraud lawsuit on Monday against Greg Mortenson, co-author of bestselling book “Three Cups of Tea,” that accused him of fabricating much of his story about promoting education for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The lawsuit, which also targeted Mortenson’s co-author, publisher and his non-profit Central Asia Institute, alleged fraud, deceit and unjust enrichment over what the plaintiffs said was fabricated material intended to “induce unsuspecting individuals to purchase his books and to donate” to his institute.
But U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon dismissed the case for what he said was the “imprecise, in part flimsy, and speculative nature of the claims and theories advanced” by the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit was filed in May 2011 following a critical report by CBS television’s “60 Minutes” program that challenged the credibility of biographical details in Mortenson’s memoir.
In particular, the “60 Minutes” report disputed his account of being kidnapped in Pakistan’s Waziristan region in 1996, and said his institute, founded to build schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was largely being used to promote the book.
The book chronicles Mortenson’s unsuccessful attempt to climb the mountain K2 in South Asia and his encounter with impoverished Pakistani villagers who he said inspired him to build schools and other projects in the region.
It stayed on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for four years.
The Central Asia Institute said in a statement emailed to Reuters that it was “invigorated” by the decision.
“Greg is on his way overseas. Our dual mission continues unabated,” said Anne Bayensdorfer, executive director of the institute, adding: “Greg stands by the stories in his books.”
After a year-long investigation by the Montana attorney general also spurred by the “60 Minutes” report, Mortenson acknowledged that less than half of his institute’s proceeds have gone into building schools but said “much of the remainder was spent on CAI’s other charitable programs.”
Earlier this month, Mortenson agreed in a settlement with the state attorney general to pay $1 million to compensate his Montana-based charity for using his non-profit to promote and buy copies of his books, but he will be allowed to continue providing education to impoverished communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mortenson’s charity received $100,000 from President Barack Obama’s $1.4 million 2009 Nobel Peace Prize award. The author and philanthropist received other support from high-profile backers and took numerous awards before the April 2011 “60 Minutes” report. (Writing and additional reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)