Wounded Warrior Project CEO Steven Nardizzi and COO Al Giordano were both fired last week by the organization’s board of directors after suspicions of overspending the charity’s funds were confirmed.
Board Chairman Anthony Odierno will head the newly created office of the CEO while the board seeks new leadership. Odierno is an Iraq War combat veteran who was wounded in action.
The Wounded Warrior Project is a nonprofit that was founded in 2003 to support veterans who suffered physical and/or mental injuries following Sept. 11. John Melia, who sustained serious injuries from a helicopter crash while serving in Somalia in 1992, founded the organization with the help of family and friends in Roanoke, Virginia. It started with preparing backpacks containing toiletries, t-shirts, socks and other basic necessities for injured veterans at hospitals. Today, over a decade later, the charity continues this backpack initiative, as well as many other benefit programs.
However, the allocation of funds has changed drastically: barely 60 percent of proceeds raised by the foundation actually go to aiding these veterans, according to Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog website. This contrasts sharply with other organizations, such as the Air Warrior Courage Foundation, which spends 97 percent of its budget on those it promises to serve, and theDisabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust, which spends 96.5 percent.
Multiple news outlets, including The New York Times and CBS News, unearthed suspicions about the charity’s finances earlier this year. An external audit conducted by FTI Consulting reviewed the organization’s spending. And while the charitystayed silent on the issue, the numbers spoke for themselves: in 2014, Wounded Warrior Project spent $26 million on conferences, conventions and meetings up from $1.7 million in 2010. Also, according to its most recent tax filing, the organization spent $7.5 million on travel alone in 2014.
During CBS News’ investigation, former employees revealed that the outlandish spending got out of control following the appointment of Nardizzi as CEO. A 2014 over-the-top company retreat to Colorado Springs that allegedly cost $3 million was used as an example of Nardizzi’s spending habits. Employees reported that at this event Nardizzi “rappelled down the side of a building” and that he had previously made entrances on a Segway or horseback.
Army Staff Sgt. Erick Millette, who formerly worked with the organization, criticized the charity’s allocation of funds.
“Donors don’t want you to have a $2,500 bar tab,” Millette said. “Donors don’t want you to fly every staff member once a year to some five-star resort and whoop it up and call it team building.”
Millette served in Iraq until 2006, at which time he returned home with a purple heart and bronze star. He worked as a public speaker with Wounded Warrior Project for two years until its financial decisions became too much.
“You’re using our injuries, our darkest days, our hardships, to make money. So you can have these big parties,” he said.
In addition to wasting the funds on dinners and hotels, the former top executives were receiving outlandish salaries as well, with Nardizzi earning $473,015 and Giordano seeing $369,030.
Top donors for the charity had been calling for Nardizzi’s resignation or questioned why he hadn’t been fired prior to the board’s decision, CBS News reported earlier this month. Fred and Dianne Kane, who have two sons serving in Iraq, have raised $325,000 for the organization since 2009. Hearing the truth about where some of the funds were going was “a real disappointment,” according to Dianne. The Kanes, as well as other generous donors, have stopped supporting the organization.
Following the negative publicity Wounded Warrior Project fought back, saying the findings in the audit were false or misrepresented. For instance, the group alleges that an estimated 94 percent of the $26 million spent on conferences and events in 2014 went to programs serving veterans and their families. It also denies the Colorado Springs retreat cost $3 million but rather pegged the price tag at a still outlandish $970,000.
While in charge, Odierno wants to shift the focus once again to the values it was founded on.
“It is now time to put the organization’s focus directly back on the men and women who have so bravely fought for our country and who need our support,” he said.