If ‘Three Cups of Tea’ was a lie, can you get your donation to the Central Asia Institute back?

If you signed a check to the Central Asia Institute (CAI) because of what Greg Mortenson wrote in his memoir or what he said during his relentless promotional tour and endless round of speeches, you may have gotten gypped.

The popular author and foundation are reeling after a 60 Minutes investigation, along with a piece at Byliner, revealed that the author of the bestselling “Three Cups of Tea” may have made some things up. What’s more, the almost $60 million dollars CAI received in donations to help build schools for girls in Afghanistan was mostly spent promoting Mortenson, his book, and some nonexistent buildings in the war-torn country, according to the piece by Jon Krakauer.

It’s all pretty damning stuff and the Attorney General’s office in Montana — where the non-profit is based –  said it’s begun an investigation into the matter, with the full cooperation of CAI. If you’re feeling a little bit uneasy about giving Mortenson and CAI tear-stained dollar bills, the question is, can you get your money back?

If you’re like President Obama, who gave the institute $100,000 of his Nobel prize money, the chances are good. Otherwise, the answer is: maybe. It depends on how charitable CAI is feeling and how much free time you have to devote.

“With my clients, if anything like this happens, if people ask for their money back, they give the money back,” attorney Tracey Bolotnick told The Daily Caller. “That’s just to maintain the public relations.” Bolotnick works for Hurwit & Associates, which offers “legal counsel for philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.”

So there’s a chance. With enough pressure, the institute, of which Mortenson is executive director, could offer people a chance to get back their money if they so desire. Anne Beyersdorfer, CAI’s volunteer director while Mortenson is in the hospital for minor heart surgery said “much of her time has been spent responding to concerns by donors who contributed money to build schools and promote education in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” according to the AP.

So if public or moneyed figures who gushed over the book and the CAI’s efforts — like California Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack — want their checks back from this tax-deductible charity organization, it’s unlikely the non-profit will want to upset them.

“Three Cups of Tea” was published in 2006 and the exposés use long-gone tax returns, though. So all those forms and money you filled out and the IRS filed have already been processed. What if you get your big contribution returned, will that be an issue?

“Yeah, I think you’re supposed to do an amended return … unless you didn’t take itemized deductions on your last year’s return,” said Bolotnick.

Forms? “Itemized returns”? Yuck.

The question, then, in this case is: What’s more important, the money donated or the insanity of having to file another IRS form?

If CAI flat-out refuses to give back your donation, that’s when legal action would have to be taken. That’s a difficult issue, too. Bolotnick said if you were really miffed, you could bring a private civil lawsuit or — with enough people — a class-action suit if you wanted. In either case, Bolotnick said the plaintiffs “winning legal theory” would be “I was fraudulently induced to give money because I thought all of the underlying information” given publicly was true.

Mortenson and the CAI, however, have defended their use of the donations, which complicates things.

Bolotnick said that she didn’t know what Montana charitable solicitation laws were “off the top of my head,” but “if they’re like the other charitable solicitation laws in the country, there will be something in there about it being illegal to solicitation of funds on the basis of fraudulent information.” Let’s assume it is, as the Montana Nonprofit Corporation Act is really hard to read and the Attorney General’s office did not return any of TheDC’s phone calls. It still doesn’t mean there’s going to be a refund.

“It’s very difficult for a consumer to recover any sort of contribution to a nonprofit,” said Dan Caprio, who has worked at the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Commerce.” A lot of companies make lots of claims. It’s actually very unusual, although there are exceptions, for consumers to recover contributions for products they paid for in the first case.”

Non-profit expert Tony Poderis, whose book “It’s a Great Day to Fund-Raise!” is probably not open on any desk at CAI right now, also said it was “naive” for people to think they could get their money back. Poderis said those seeking legal avenues to be reimbursed would probably end up spending much more cash than they actually donated. This goes double for regular folks with no political clout or money to burn.

Poderis’ suggestion: Just ask.

Great idea!

CAI was unavailable for comment, so TheDC had intrepid intern Caitlin Emma call up the institute to inquire about the money she donated and report back.

Emma asked if there was anything she should know about the $150 donation she made. After confirming that she had read the statement from the website, she was told that “Greg” is still in the hospital for minor heart surgery and hasn’t issued any more statements.

“The donation that I made was kind of substantial for how much I make. I’m like an intern,” Emma told the representative at CAI. “I don’t really make a lot of money. Would it be possible to be given a refund, if that’s something I wanted to look into?”

“If you would like a refund, I can give you an email address to contact someone … that could be providing refunds,” said the representative.

“We can only issue refunds for this current calendar year just because we use them for their tax benefits,” said the rep. “And so, you can send them an email to support@ikat.org.”

Unfortunately, email doesn’t work. Even more unfortunate, Emma’s story, like Mortenson’s, was a “synthesis”of details. As an intern, she doesn’t make diddly squat.

Caitlin Emma contributed amazing acting to this piece.

— Originally published on June 6, 2011. Read the real thing here.
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