Wounded Warrior Project board hires PR firm

Reports highlight claims of questionable spending practices at charity

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Wounded Warrior Project Board of Directors has hired a public relations team with a specialty in crisis management after News4Jax investigative reports on questionable spending practices as the Jacksonville-based charity.

The organization has been at the center of a firestorm after several whistleblowers raised red flags about how donors' money is spent.

The WWP board, which is working separately from the charity, released a statement earlier this week saying it took the concerns seriously and planned to retain independent advisers to look into the charity's financial practices and policies.

The CEO of the board's new PR team, the Abernathy MacGregor Group based in New York City, said the board has hired Simpson Thatcher as its legal counsel.

The board, which is made up six men, including four veterans, is also working to bring in financial advisers.

ONLINE: Wounded Warrior Project Board bios

The board will use those experts to comb through Wounded Warrior Project's financial records to see if, in fact, there is any history of questionable spending or policy problems. That process is expected to take several weeks.

Most of the board members are based in the Northeast.  Two were injured in combat.

One is an executive vice president for CBS corporation, and another worked with General Electric and Home Depot.

Only one of the six board members has been on the board since Wounded Warrior Project was founded.

The board is half the size it used to be, and although no women are currently serving on the board, women have been represented in the past.

The PR firm for the board declined to comment on whether the board had met with or plans to meet with the charity's CEO, Steven Nardizzi.

Board responds to WWP firestorm

A News4Jax investigation uncovered reports of lavish spending on employees, a discrepancy in funds used for veteran programs, and a culture of fear inside the organization's Jacksonville headquarters.

The WWP Board of Directors released a written statement about the allegations:

"For more than a decade, the Wounded Warrior Project ("WWP") has operated with the sole purpose of honoring and empowering the courageous men and women who have been injured in service of our country. As a Board, we volunteer our time in support of this mission because we profoundly believe in its lasting, positive impact on the 83,000 wounded warriors and over 15,000 family members that the organization serves. We want to thank the Wounded Warrior Project's donors, sponsors, employees and partners whose extraordinary generosity makes this possible.

The Board takes very seriously the concerns that have been raised in recent days and is in the process of retaining independent advisors to conduct a thorough financial and policy review of the concerns. We remain steadfast in our commitment to our warriors and supporters and will ensure that the organization is effectively fulfilling this important mission."

Since the allegations surfaced, Charity Navigator, an independent charity oversight group, placed WWP, the nation's best-known charity that helps veterans, on its Watch List as an alert for donors. Before doing so, Charity Navigator's committee gave WWP two days to respond, but never heard from the organization.

Charity Navigator examined Wounded Warrior Project's financial filings with the IRS and found just under 60 percent of all donations go back into veterans' programs.

Another charity watchdog, Charity Watch, used a different financial resource, Wounded Warrior Project's independently audited financial statements, and found just 54 percent of donations went to veterans.
Wounded Warrior Project disputes both ratings on social media, saying 80 percent of spending goes back into programs for services.

Donor support for the charity has exploded. In its first fiscal year 2005 to 2006, the charity collected $10 million. By 2010, it was $40 million. Then donations grew to $70 million. The following year it doubled to $143 million, followed by $225 million. In fiscal year 2014, WWP received $312 million.

In the most recent financial statements available, fiscal year 2014, News4Jax uncovered that the group's CEO Steve Nardizzi took home $496,000 in salary and benefits. His number two, Al Giordano, made $424,000. Ten other executives made up to $285,000 each, all paid with donor money.

An audit of that same year shows WWP taking in an additional $88 million of in-kind contributions, or goods and services, on top of the $312 million in donations. That brings the non-profit’s total resources to $400 million.

WWP will remain on the Charity Navigator Watch List for six months.

About the Author:

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