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Allegations against 'Three Cups' author surprises HB Reads leader

HB Reads' founder expressed shock Monday morning at allegations that the author may have altered and fabricated parts of the first book the citywide program spotlighted.

Fred Provencher, who started the annual reading program in 2008, said he had not seen the "60 Minutes" report Sunday night that questioned many of Greg Mortenson's claims in "Three Cups of Tea," which describes his experiences building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

However, Provencher said he was "dumbfounded" by the allegations and that the HB Reads committee had nothing but good experiences with Mortenson when he visited Huntington Beach.

"He was just such an outgoing, gracious person, or is," Provencher said. "Obviously, he's not guilty until someone comes along and says, 'There's nothing here.'"

The "60 Minutes" story featured interviews with a fellow mountaineer and several people who knew Mortenson during his travels, as well as officials at schools that Mortenson's nonprofit, the Central Asia Institute, helped build.

Some of those sources allege that Mortenson compressed the time element of some of his stories and that an account of him being kidnapped by the Taliban is made-up.

The news team also said the institute spends more money on promoting itself than building schools. According to CBS, half a dozen schools listed on the nonprofit's tax return appear not to exist, and other sites have been abandoned or neglected for years.

Mortenson, in an interview with the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in Montana, admitted that he had compressed some events in his narrative for simplicity's sake, but stood by the facts otherwise. He also defended his nonprofit work, saying he has donated more than $100,000 of his own money to the institute and done some speaking engagements for free.

HB Reads donated about $2,000 to Mortenson when he visited, Provencher said.

Like other HB Reads authors, Mortenson gave a presentation to students and community members at Huntington Beach High School on the final day of the program. Not only did the event draw an overflow crowd at the high school gymnasium, but Mortenson personally bought more than 100 books for students, Provencher said.

He noted that during the book selection process and throughout Mortenson's visit, the book's accuracy never came into question.

Provencher said he hoped the author's side of the story turned out to be true. He added, though, that there was little HB Reads could do to check the accuracy of books.

"I don't know that we're a large enough organization to vet somebody's book as to accuracy," Provencher said. "If it takes CBS to do something like this, I can't imagine what the committee of HB Reads could do."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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