Wounded Warrior Project yearbooks raise more spending questions

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Former employees are raising more red flags about possible questionable spending by the Wounded Warrior Project.

The Jacksonville-based charity is under fire across the country after whistleblowers spoke out against the nonprofit's spending choices.

Now, former employees are questioning the group's practice of printing annual yearbooks for its staff. News4Jax was told those yearbooks cost more than $20,000 annually to produce.

Wounded Warrior Project has not responded to requests for confirmation of the cost of the yearbooks.

“I never talked to any employees who thought they were valuable. In fact, we all thought it was an expense that wasn't necessary,” said one former employee, who asked not to be identified.

The ex-employee, who has financial knowledge of the charity, came forward after the initial reports aired on Channel 4, and News4Jax agreed to conceal her identity because she was afraid of retaliation.

“There needs to be huge change,” she said. “I'll say that. There needs to be a huge change.”

Other whistleblowers who had already come forward to News4Jax also complained about the yearbooks.

“We all graduated high school a long time ago. We're all adults. We don't need a yearbook,” Erick Millette said. “Donors don't want you spending money on a yearbook.”

News4Jax obtained three copies of the WWP yearbooks, filled with hundreds of pictures of the nonprofit's staff. The yearbooks are gifted to the staff by the charity's CEO, Steven Nardizzi, or “Jazz Hands” as he called himself in the inaugural 2012 yearbook.

Each yearbook opens with a collection of headshots of the charity's hundreds of employees. Recent editions break them down by department.

There's a section for each of the organization's core values: Fun, Integrity, Loyalty, Innovation and Service.

The most recent yearbook in 2014 had 53 pages devoted to fun and 32 pages allotted to service.

Birthday celebrations, even for the company mascot, were celebrated at various Wounded Warrior Project offices. The books contain snapshots of holidays ranging from Halloween costumes to office pumpkin carving to Christmas ornament decorating and even a celebration for International Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day.

Nardizzi can be seen playing a pong game with cups. Executives were dressed in cow costumes. Offices were decked with toilet paper, balloons and gift wrap.

A mariachi band and a Mexican fiesta were held to celebrate the end of one fiscal year, and another fiscal year was capped with a pie-eating contest.

The book has a section for nap time, selfies and dressing like your co-worker, twinsies or triplets.

The charity's office-wide pingpong tournament is also remembered.

A quote page includes one that reads: "Thanks for calling Wounded Warrior Project. What the (expletive) do you want?” which is presumably intended as humor.

There is also a social media section that appears to poke fun at some posts from the public to the charity titled "No words."

There are also photos from employee team-building trips to go indoor skydiving, painting, cooking, bowling, racing go-carts and completing a ropes course.

One caption reads: "Getting that SPF day at the Ribault Club followed by Amelia Island Kayaking."

News4Jax also found pages at the end of each yearbook devoted to military veterans and the charity's programs.

There is also one page of employees building houses for the needy, picking up trash, donating to a food pantry and building furniture for warriors.

Snapshots from the charity's annual awards gala were also included, as are strategic planning events, along with facts and figures of how much the nonprofit grew that year.

The closing message of the yearbook: “There's no place like WWP!”

The WWP Board of Directors announced Monday that it's in the process of retaining independent advisers to conduct a thorough financial and policy review of the concerns raised about the charity.

WWP said it remains steadfast in its commitment to America's warriors and the charity's supporters and will ensure that the organization is effectively fulfilling its important mission.
  
News4Jax has continued to request an interview with Nardizzi.

Public relations specialist Rob Louis has offered to let us talk to the WWP spokesman instead. Louis said he's qualified to answer our questions. But we want to talk to Nardizzi. 


About the Author:

Lynnsey Gardner is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning investigative reporter and fill-in anchor for The Local Station.