JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two former executives for the Wounded Warrior Project spoke publicly for the first time since they were fired from the organization after allegations of lavish spending and a culture of intimidation.
Former Chief Executive Officer Steven Nardizzi and Chief Operating Officer Al Giordano spoke to Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade, who has hosted the WWP Courage Awards for several years.
"The first thing I would say is, I'm not perfect, the organization is not perfect," said Nardizzi. "We've clearly made mistakes along the way, despite the great success of the organization. Looking back, one of my regrets is that I allowed a few activities we did, small time during a conference intended to boost employee morale, dealing with warriors in crisis, I allowed the image to be used by the media to misrepresent who we are and what we do as an organization. For that, to our donors and supporters, I apologize personally for that."
Nardizzi was referring to rappelling down the side of the Broadmoor, a five-star resort in Colorado Springs in 2014, and coming into a 2012 conference on a horse.
The Colorado Springs event was not a fundraiser. It was a retreat for the charity’s employees. Hundreds of individuals flew in from around the country to attend.
Nardizzi said he was disappointed in the board's decision to fire him and Giordano after its investigation.
"But I understand the pressure the media can bring to bear," said Nardizzi. "I felt it myself and I think by the time the board completed its review and with the mounting criticism, they felt they needed to make a change to end the criticism and allow the organization to move on."
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.
Nardizzi told Fox News that WWP has grown from serving only 3,000 warriors a year to over 100,000.
"It's grown to over 20 programs that provide deep and meaningful services to our warriors and their family members," said Nardizzi. "Every day we keep them out of nursing homes, we keep them out of crisis, we keep them from committing suicide, from homelessness, substance abuse."
In the most recent financial statements available, fiscal year 2014, News4Jax uncovered 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.
Charity Watch, an independent non-profit watchdog, also examined the financials of the WWP and rated it a C. It found 54 percent of its overall public donations went to programs.
On social media, News4Jax found WWP repeatedly disputing such financial criticisms, claiming 80 percent of spending goes back into programs for services.
"It's been difficult. Between my military service and my service for veterans, I have about 30 years invested in serving or serving those who have served," Giordano said to Fox News. "However, the people who know me and know Steve, know the type of character and integrity we have. They know these are false allegations and misrepresentation."
Iowa Senator Charles Grassley sent a letter to Wounded Warrior Project on Friday. The letter points to a meeting Senator Grassley's staff had with Nardizzi once reports of inappropriate spending came to light.
"In that meeting, we were assured that WWP was allocating its donation income appropriately towards serving veterans," the letter states. "However, significant questions remain as to whether or not WWP is properly performing its side of the bargain for veterans and taxpayers alike."
In the letter, Senator Grassley asks for the charity to provide the Senate Finance Committee with any accounts of spending that would not be listed on tax forms. That includes money spent on travel and meetings. WWP is also asked to provide a "detailed breakdown of the 80.6 percent of donations which the WWP claims are spent on programs and services for veterans."
The News4JAX I-Team asked the WWP Board of Directors for its reaction to the letter.
"We have received a letter from Senator Grassley's office and plan to cooperate with his requests for information," said the board.
As for what's next, Nardizzi told Fox News he will find other ways to serve and give back.
"I've spent my life working to help others. I have a passion for doing it," said Nardizzi. "I've been blessed to see the benefit of the work that myself and the incredible team at the Wounded Warrior Project have been able to accomplish."