Report questions organization behind "Pennies for Peace"

Reported by Lou Hillman | bio | email

It was an effort that inspired a lot of people in the La Crosse area, especially school children, but some big questions are being raised now about the organization behind the fundraising effort "Pennies for Peace."

The fundraising effort can be attributed to Greg Mortenson, a best-selling author and humanitarian.

His book "Three Cups of Tea" chronicles his travels to remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In it, Mortenson talks about his desire to bring more educational opportunities to those areas, especially for women.

The book has been the foundation for his non-profit organization the Central Asia Institute.

But an investigation by CBS's "60 Minutes" that aired on Sunday questions how funds are allocated by the CAI and Mortenson's stories in his book.

Click here to watch the "60 Minutes" story.

In September 2009, Mortenson made a highly publicized appearance at Viterbo University. He was introduced by Darryle Clott, one of the university's instructors. Clott almost singly handedly brought him to campus.

"The fact that Greg has educated over 60,000 kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan, mostly girls, it's just incredibly important to me," said Clott, still a strong supporter of Mortenson.

During his appearance at Viterbo, Mortenson went on to talk about his life, his group's work in Central Asia, and the organization's effort called "Pennies for Peace."

"The main thing is we encourage kids to find something on their own to they get involved with 'Pennies for Peace'," Mortenson said at the time.

After Mortenson's visit to La Crosse, a huge community-wide fundraising effort ensued.

About 50 schools participated with students collecting pennies to donate to the caused. The students ended up raising more than $50,000.

"It was a wonderful educational tool that teachers used so children could learn about children in other areas of the world and also make a difference," said Mariyln Hempstead, who led the local "Pennies for Peace" effort.

But the "60 Minutes" report has raised some serious questions about if the money went where it was supposed to have gone.

"Maybe not as large as we thought but as far as charities go, it's probably a good percentage," said Hempstead, who also is still a strong supporter of Mortenson.

The several-month long investigation by CBS's "60 Minutes" claims the Central Asia Institute has not built all the schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that it claims to have built.

Also, the report says the CAI has actually spent more money here in the United States than it has overseas, paying for things like Mortenson to fly in private jets to attend speaking engagements.

The "60 Minutes" report also says Mortenson's book, which is the foundation for his humanitarian work, is not truthful.

"I don't think that takes away anything from the 'Pennies for Peace' project," said Hempstead.

Mortenson repeatedly declined "60 Minutes" interview requests. Although, he has since admitted several of his personal experiences were merged together to form the storyline in "Three Cups of Tea."

However, in a statement, Mortenson says the "60 Minutes" story paints a distorted view of his organization.

Click here to read Mortenson's full statement.

Mortenson also defended the CAI's work and the dozens of schools it has built overseas.

There's no doubt that Mortenson has touched countless lives and still has many people standing behind him.

"He's done great things, he's still one of my heroes. If Greg has a fault, it would be that he's not organized," said Clott, speculating about some of the financial discrepancies alleged in the "60 Minutes" report.

This latest report, however, raises serious questions about his credibility and what his organization has accomplished.

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