JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The movement to bring back the founder of Wounded Warrior Project is gaining traction, from a petition to a new Facebook group calling for the nation's largest veterans' charity to “Restore Trust.”
The charity's Board of Directors fired the nonprofit's top two executives last week, following an internal investigation prompted by news reports that uncovered accusations of lavish spending and a culture of intimidation at the Jacksonville-based organization.
A day after the board fired Chief Executive Officer Steven Nardizzi and Chief Operating Officer Al Giordano, the charity's founder, former Marine John A. Melia, offered to return to run the organization.
A Change.org petition aimed at the WWP board supports Melia's effort to return. It has garnered more than 350 signatures so far.
A Facebook page that is 500 members strong, also backs Melia's potential return to the helm of the charity he created for post-9/11 veterans.
Melia's message might be resonating with donors and critics, but the charity's board of directors has remained silent on whether it's even interested in a conversation with Melia, who was reportedly forced out in 2009.
Melia told News4Jax this week that if anyone had asked him last Thursday morning if he was interested in leading the Wounded Warrior Project again he would have said no.
But he said when he saw images of Nardizzi and Giordano side by side as the ousted top brass, it stirred deep pain within him, knowing the scandalous reports were far from what the organization was meant to stand for.
Melia's father, John F. Melia, a retired U.S. Army colonel who helped his son found Wounded Warrior Project, said he believes his son is the one who can get things back on track.
“A lot of time and tears went into getting this organization up, from going to Walmart and getting backpacks to getting playing cards to fill them,” the elder Melia said. “He's the only person that can right the ship.”
The Melia family said that while it's painful to see the charity that was built with good intentions tied to wasteful spending and a culture of intimidation and fear, it's not surprising.
“We weren't shocked,” the elder Melia said. “It was never a question of if. It was always a question of when.”
After founding the charity in 2003 and earning certified nonprofit status in 2005, the younger Melia brought on two friends, Nardizzi and Giordano, to help him grow the project. By 2009, Nardizzi had taken over in what Melia's father said was basically a coup.
“His trust was betrayed,” the elder Melia said. “What he thought was a very good, strong relationship all moving in the same direction was not what it was.”
Now the Melia family believes the board of directors should sit and talk with John A. Melia and hear his 10-point plan to restore trust with the American public.
“If you're bleeding, you have to figure out how to stop the bleeding somewhere,” the elder Melia said.
Board breaks silence after firings
So far, the board has had no comment on the search for the next leader, but the chairman of the board broke his silence Monday and talked with “CBS This Morning.”
“I wouldn't say that it got severely off track. Whenever you do the type of review that we did, you're going to find something,” Anthony Odierno said. “We did find a place we can strengthen policies.”
Odierno defended the charity's counting of direct mailers to donors as a program expense.
“Raising awareness is a very important part of our mission, and it's always been an important part of our mission and connects American people with our servicemen and women,” he said.
That interview didn't sit well with now outspoken ex-donor Fred Kane, who said he also believes John A. Melia needs to come back and lead the charity he started.
“I thought it was coached and to me it showed no emotions and this is such a hot button issue,” Kane said. “You can't claim transparency and being open and then not live it, and they do not live it.”
Kane raised $325,000 for WWP over the last eight years through golf tournaments, but after the investigative reports were aired, he started a petition demanding Nardizzi be fired and a full audit of the charity's finances be made public.
Sources believe that regardless of who the board choose, the new CEO of Wounded Warrior Project will be someone with seasoned military experience.
Aftermath of major shakeup
After weeks of News4Jax and national investigators breaking stories on allegations of questionable spending and a culture of fear at the Jacksonville-based nonprofit, the board fired Nardizzi and Giordano.
The board also announced that it has created an Office of the CEO to oversee the organization on an interim basis, effective immediately. That office will be led by WWP Board Chairman Anthony Odierno and will consist of senior members of the existing executive team.
The board will initiate a nationwide search for a permanent CEO.
Sources told News4Jax that Wounded Warrior Project staff members were battling mixed emotions Friday. Some were happy that the top two execs were gone, and others were shocked and disappointed to learn the news of the firings through the media and not internally.
Nardizzi and Giordano were two of the members of the executive team making up the core leadership of the nation’s largest veterans charity, which brought in $350 million in donations in 2014, according to the nonprofit’s most-recently audited financial statements.
News4Jax first began investigating the charity in early January. We spoke with seven former employees, who all relayed stories of wasteful spending at employee training events and unnecessary office parties.
That spending included a training event at the Broadmoor in Colorado, which cost $970,000.
Along with spending practices, former employees also questioned the group's practice of printing expensive annual yearbooks for its staff that cost more than $20,000 a year.
Sources connected to the WWP board said several elements in the News4Jax investigative reports were heavily considered in the board's decision, including two lawsuits filed against Wounded Warrior Project employees and injured veterans, the yearbooks and a major donor pulling his support.
Charity Navigator, an independent charity oversight group, 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.
Since the allegations surfaced, Charity Navigator placed WWP 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.
The Patriots Initiative, a California-based charity that grades military charities, also downgraded WWP and removed the charity from its list of efficient and transparent charities.
In response to the local and national stories about the questionable spending practices, the WWP board of directors, made up of six men, issued a statement, saying "the Board takes very seriously the concerns that have been raised" and promising a full financial and policy review.
That review ended Thursday with the firing of the two executives, who made more than $890,000 in salary and bonuses between them.
Nardizzi was paid $473,000 in salary and $23,000 in bonuses. Giordano made $369,000 in salary and $28,000 in bonuses.
Of the six WWP board members, four are veterans and two were injured in combat. Most of the board members are based in the Northeast. One is an executive vice president for CBS Corp. Another worked with General Electric and Home Depot.
The board said in its release that it will strengthen WWP's travel policies and policies related to employee and director expenses. It will also enhance employee training and will continue to have its financial statements independently audited and available on the organization's Website.