Founder says Wounded Warrior Project grew too fast

John Melia flew to Jacksonville to talk about returning, resurrecting group

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Former Marine John Melia, who started the Wounded Warrior Project 13 years ago, said the nonprofit grew too big, too fast, creating some of the problems that led to a shakeup at the top of his former organization.

The Wounded Warrior Project has grown into the nation's largest veterans' charity, raising an estimated $800 million in donations. Last Thursday, the charity's board of directors fired chief executive officer.

Steven Nardizzi and chief operating officer Al Giordano as the organization cracks down on employee expenses and strengthens controls that have not kept pace with the rapid growth.

Melia, who flew overnight from Texas to Jacksonville to sit down with the I-TEAM on Thursday, said he was shut out of the charity he founded by the men he brought in to help it grow.

UNCUT: Watch Lynnsey Gardner's complete interview with John Melia

Melia recruited Nardizzi and Giordano, who he met separately nearly 20 years ago while they were working for other veteran charities. He once considered them good friends and hired them hoping they'd help grow his vision.

He said instead, the pair -- and others still employed by Wounded Warrior Project -- were steered by personal gain and lost their focus, rewriting the charity's history.

He said when he learned of their ouster from the charity, he felt vindicated for the two orchestrating his departure in 2009.

A press release in 2009 said Melia would stay on board with WWP, but he did not.

“They did good work for a long time, but organizations need a conscience,” Melia said. “I think in my tenure, while I was there, I was the conscience of the organization.”

Melia said when he was at the organization, he vowed to never make more than $199,000 a year in the job.

WATCH: Founder of Wounded Warrior Project hopes to restore order

“That was met with a lot of concern and frustration by the people who were working with me (because they wanted to make more money),” Melia said. “If the organization got to where it is today and your CEO has put a cap on your salary, all boats don’t rise, and that was the beginning of some of the difficulty we were having.”

According to the charity's tax filings, Nardizzi was paid $473,000 in salary and $23,000 in bonuses in 2014. Giordano made $369,000 in salary and $28,000 in bonuses that year.

“I think  they believed a theory that your salary should be tied directly to how much money you raise and the success of fundraising,” Melia added. “I believe you need to have good people and good people need to be compensated fairly but there is a standard of reasonableness.”

Melia said after he left, salaries grew year over year and so did the executive staff.

“It's not rocket science to have 14 executive vice presidents -- it isn't just wrong -- it looks bad,” Melia said. “All of those executive vice presidents made very good six-figure salaries, and the public is offended, and they should be.”

Humble beginnings

Melia, who was injured in a helicopter crash in Somalia, and his wife began small, starting the charity with $50 in their basement in 2003. They stuffed backpacks to give to wounded warriors.

Melia said his goal then is still the same today: to foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in the nation's history.

“We had an opportunity to do it differently. The veterans of Vietnam were treated so poorly when they came back to this country and their message was delivered so poorly,” Melia said.

The Wounded Warrior Project became a federally recognized charity in 2005.

"I will tell you I never expected it to be as big as it is today," Melia said. "I don't know if I wanted it to be as big as it is today. In fact, with what's going on today, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, it grew too fast, and it became exactly what we didn’t want it to be become. We didn’t want to be an old-guard veteran service organization. We didn’t want to have a massive fundraising plan, because frankly, you have to raise money to do what you need to do.”

Melia said he and his family want a personal apology from Wounded Warrior Project for writing them out of the charity's history.

After Melia's departure, the narrative changed to say the charity was started by friends.

That, Melia said, is painful and not fair to the veterans who were helped in the very beginning.

Melia said donors who supported the group since its humble beginning "have every right to be angry about the lack of stewardship shown by the immediate past leadership of WWP," and "the new leadership of the WWP must do everything in its power to restore its relationship and regain the trust of those it serves and its donors."

'Crisis of conscience'

Over the past two months, News4Jax and national news organizations have exposed the group's lavish spending -- the group's 2014 annual staff meeting at a five-star resort cost $970,000 -- prompting complaints from employees, veterans and charity watchdogs about profiteering off veterans.

Melia said he was disappointed when he learned of  the I-TEAM's investigative reports with whistleblowers sounding the alarm on the charity's spending practices and a culture of fear and intimidation for anyone who spoke out against the group.

“There is a standard of reasonableness and what's happened over the last five to six years, they have crossed the line of reasonableness, and frankly, they got caught,” Melia said. “What I am really angry about is there were 14 executive vice presidents and a board of six who did not see that wrong. … There is burglary and there is robbery. One is worse than the other, and in this case, Wounded Warrior Project was wrong and what upsets me is they won't admit it. They are tone deaf. It's an echo chamber and there is a crisis of conscience inside the  Wounded Warrior Project right now.”

Melia said top management he once put in place didn't like when he started hiring people outside their circle.

“It was almost like you could not pierce this group of people, they were so tight,” Melia said. “Nothing came into the circle or out of the circle. If you were someone who raised an issue or concern that dealt with that group involved, there was going to be retribution involved.”

They also didn't care for his more cautious approach to fundraising, he said.

“I think they tried to hide behind this dialogue (that) 'We will do better as a nonprofit sector if we attract Google and Facebook-type talent.' I don’t think that’s true,” Melia said. “I think we saw that attitude run riot at Wounded Warrior Project. Wounded Warrior Project is not Facebook or Google.”

Offending donors

Melia also responded to our I-TEAM reports showing internal emails from the WWP executive staff and Facebook posts from Chief Programs Officer Adam Silva calling the investigation into the charity “bull****.” Silva is still employed by the Wounded Warrior Project.

“I made three very bad hires, and I would count Adam Silva at the top of that list,” Melia said. “I was offended, as were our donors.”

Now Melia is wondering if the Wounded Warrior Project truly understands the gravity of what went wrong.

“The executive team at Wounded Warrior Project has drank the Kool-Aid, and they are not responding to this properly,” Melia said. “There is justifiable anger in the community, justifiable anger, and they're tone deaf.

“Men and women who are on fixed incomes in this country do not want to see their donor dollars going to snacks in the break room or going to lavish retreats,” Melia added. “This is a direct message to employees: If you're working for Wounded Warrior Project and you need a retreat and a training at the Broadmoor in Colorado, you're in the wrong profession.”

The I-TEAM obtained an email sent by the chairman of the board to Wounded Warrior Project alumni and their families. It states the board is moving as quickly and decisively as it can to address the concerns raised by the recent investigations.

Hoping to heal

Melia offered a personal apology to all who believed in the organization he built.

“I want to speak directly to the wounded warriors that the organization serves, to our donors, to our employees and to the American people. I want to tell you, 'I'm sorry.' If the organization is unwilling to do it, I'm going to tell you, 'I'm sorry.' I take some responsibility for hiring the individuals that perpetrated lavish spending inside the organization,” Melia said. “I take personal responsibility for some of that. I'm sorry, personally. I hope the organization can be big enough to come out and say they're sorry, too, and start from a place where we all can heal. I think that's a first step.”

Melia said the actions of the two fired executives should not reflect poorly on charity employees who are still doing good work and have helped thousands of wounded veterans.

“It's so important that we save this organization,” Melia said. “It's so important that we fix this crisis of confidence and that we restore trust.”

Melia has asked the Wounded Warrior Project's board for a meeting, so he can offer his help, believing he can return the focus solely to helping injured veterans and restore trust from the public. He has a 10-point plan he would implement if he is named CEO.

“I think I'm the only person right now in this country that can restore the trust with the veterans and the donors,” Melia said. “There has been nothing short of a movement to bring me back by the veterans.”

A petition aimed at the WWP board supports Melia's effort to return. It has garnered more than 494 signatures so far.  A Facebook page that is 800 members strong also backs Melia's potential return.

A spokesman for the Wounded Warrior Project board of directors said Thursday that "the board is conducting a comprehensive search to find the next CEO of the organization and, like anyone who expresses an interest, John will be carefully considered."

Melia said he has spoken with the board, but has yet to meet with anyone about coming back.

“The only people that don't want me to come back to the organization are the people inside the Wounded Warrior Project, are the people threatened by me coming back,” Melia said. “They are scared to death, because one of the things we said is we would stop these bonuses. Of course, if you're there for the right reasons, you don't care.”

Melia said he also thinks the board of directors needs to be given a hard once-over.

“Let me say this, (chairman) Tony Odierno is a gentleman. He is a hero of our country. The board of directors are all volunteers,” Melia said. “Do I trust each man individually? Of course I do. What I don't trust is the way they've been performing their fiduciary responsibilities, and they let their number dwindle to six.”

Melia said that while he thinks the board needs to publicly apologize, more importantly, transparency should dominate the new culture at Wounded Warrior Project.

“This may not work out for me and that's OK,” Melia said. “I'm fine with that, but the public needs to know what happened there so it doesn't happen again. Not just at Wounded Warrior Project but anywhere.”

About the Authors:

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

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.