Wounded Warrior Project names interim COO

CEO, COO of Jacksonville-based veterans charity fired after investigation

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An Army veteran has been named to the position of interim chief operating officer of the Wounded Warrior Project after a major shakeup at the nation's largest veterans charity in the wake of I-TEAM and national investigations into allegations of questionable spending and a culture of fear at the Jacksonville-based nonprofit.

Chief Executive Officer Steven Nardizzi and Chief Operating Officer Al Giordano were ousted earlier this month by the WWP board of directors.

The News4Jax I-TEAM confirmed that retired Maj. Gen. Charlie Fletcher has been named interim COO, effective April 11.

Fletcher currently serves on the WWP Advisory Council and has more than 30 years of military experience.

Former Marine John Melia, the founder of Wounded Warrior Project, has offered to return to run the organization.

“I think General Fletcher is a good pick, a safe pick,” Melia told the I-TEAM via Skype Monday. “He's a man of character. You don't get to be a general officer in the Army and command troops the way he has without begin a good man and a good leader.”

A letter from WWP Board Chair Anthony Odierno to the charity's employees touted Fletcher's military background as an asset as the nonprofit attempts to right its ship after the scandal.

"His impressive background and experience in both the military and private sector makes him uniquely well positioned to lead our organization while the board continues its comprehensive search for a permanent CEO," Odierno wrote of Fletcher.

According to his bio on the organization’s website, Fletcher has also served as a logistics senior mentor to NATO since retiring from the Army.

“He's used to commanding large organizations,” Melia said. “Wound Warrior Project's 500 or 600 employees should be no problem for him.”

Melia said he would recommend Fletcher quickly meet with employees and start to steady the ship.

"I think he'll do that. I think he'll immediately steady the ship. I think he's got some significant work to do when it comes to his senior leaders and determining who stays and who goes, but you know, I put my trust that he'll do the right thing and that he'll carry out the mission," Melia said.

Former Wounded Warrior Project speaker turned whistleblower Erick Millette, a combat-wounded veteran, said he had mixed reactions to Fletcher's appointment.

“I think it's great they recognize they need senior military leadership within the executive level at Wounded Warrior Project,” Millette said. “However, bringing someone on from the advisory board concerns me because that person may have biased views.”

Millette pointed out that Odierno, the man making the hire, is also a WWP insider.

When it announced the ousting of 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 is being led by Odierno and consists of senior members of the existing executive team.

READ: WWP announces leadership changes

The board has initiated a nationwide search for a permanent CEO, and Odierno told employees in his letter that WWP has hired an executive search advisory firm, Korn Ferry, to help in the search.

"Hopefully I'll be considered as one of the candidates," Melia said. "I still certainly think that I'm the best candidate for the position. I have the widest experience in the veteran nonprofit space, a good reputation, but it's up to the board of directors. They'll make the best decision for Wounded Warrior Project, and I'm just going to have to put my trust in them."

In the meantime, Fletcher will help lead the organization from its headquarters in Jacksonville and will be the senior member of the leadership team, reporting directly to Odierno.

"I am extremely pleased to have an executive of Charlie's caliber join the organization," Odierno wrote.

But Millette said he believes that WWP needs outside leadership to make real changes.

“Especially for the next 12 to 18 months,” he said. “Once they have a new executive team in place, I really think that needs to happen, so they don't head down that same cultural path that they are on.”

A news release announcing the firings detailed the board's findings after a six-week independent review of the charity’s finances and culture. The board said the leadership changes were needed to "restore trust in the organization among all of the constituencies WWP serves."

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.

The I-TEAM first began investigating the charity in early January. We spoke with seven former employees, including Millette, 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.

Millette remains especially bothered by two I-TEAM reports on other executives within the Wounded Warrior Project.

Adam Silva, the charity's chief programs officer, spoke out about the investigative reports on his social media pages, referring to the controversy as "heavy bulls***."

One of Silva's Facebook posts, made two days after the investigative reports in January, read:

“Disclaimer: 'Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth.'  ... This week many who love me asked, 'how you holding up?' My response: God blessed me with the honor and responsibility of leading the baddest f'ing non-profit program team IN THE WORLD for the baddest f'ing Veterans Service Organization IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY. I'd say I'm 'holding up' pretty well.”

Millette also pointed to another I-TEAM report regarding emails from Executive Vice President Jonathan Sullivan. Sullivan wrote in an internal email to staff that he was frustrated about "how a few cowardly individuals and a few lazy reporters with an agenda can damage the public's trust."

According to the WWP website, both men are still employed by the charity and are earning six-figure executive salaries.

“We've all seen the leaked emails. We've all seen the tantrums like a toddler stomping around when you don't get your way on social media. There is no hiding that lack of professionalism,” Millette said. “That's the kind of culture that breeds through Wounded Warrior Project, and it's going to stay that way until you remove it.”

In response to the local and national stories about 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 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.

"I think he's got some significant work to do when it comes to his senior leaders and determining who stays and who goes," said Melia, about the task Fletcher faces. "But you know, I put my trust that he'll do the right thing and that he'll carry out the mission."

In his letter, Odierno acknowledged to staff: "I am deeply aware that recent events have been challenging for all of us across the organization. … With your unwavering commitment and passion, we are pulling in the right direction and maintaining focus on what matters most -- the warriors we serve."

About the Author:

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