Internal emails obtained after WWP firings

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - News4JAX obtained internal emails sent to staff at the now-embattled Wounded Warrior Project, days after two top executives were fired after an investigation into lavish spending and reports of a culture of intimidation.

Sources told News4JAX the staffers heard of the firings through the news and these emails show the culture is unchanged.

READ: WWP internal emails

The morning after the firings of CEO Steven Nardizzi and COO Al Giordano, Executive Vice President Jonathan Sullivan emailed the team.

"I won't lie. I was pretty frustrated today because I spent too much time thinking about how a few cowardly individuals and a few lazy reporters with an agenda can damage the public's trust in the great work that you do," wrote Sullivan.

LINK: Jonathan Sullivan's WWP profile

News4JAX showed internal WWP emails to Robert Cohen, President of RSC Consulting that handles public relations and crisis management. 

"The lens they're looking through is a flawed one. You don't blame the messenger for the bad news," said Cohen.

As WWP was silent to the media and the public in the weeks following the initial reports and while the board was conducting an independent investigation, News4Jax uncovered more emails to staff revealing management's mindset at that point.

"Please realize our leaders have our backs. They helped build this amazingly successful organization ... trust their judgment and their response strategy," Sullivan emailed to the team.

Another email from employee Dan Schnock to staffers reads, "Your character and that of WWP's is ROCK SOLID."

In another email from Sullivan, he compared criticism of Wounded Warrior Project to that President Abraham Lincoln endured, forwarding an article about "the difficulty of recognizing excellence in its own time." 

Sullivan further writes, "When you are committed to doing the right thing, it doesn't matter what those around you say about you."

"They're talking in an echo chamber and they haven't acknowledged to themselves and haven't acknowledged to others there are serious problems that need to be addressed," said Cohen.

The charity's Board of Directors conducted a six-week investigation into lavish spending and as a result, Nardizzi and Giordano were fired last week.

Sullivan sent an email to the staff the day after their departures.

"This morning we are waking up to a new reality.  It's a reality we didn't anticipate, we didn't ask for and we didn't want to see come," writes Sullivan. "If you think about it, the Warriors and family members we serve are injured they are faced with a reality they never welcomed or anticipated."

Sullivan also wrote they will move forward without any doubts about the work they do.

"That is what I expect from myself, what I expect from all of you and what I know Steve and Al would expect us to do," Sullivan wrote.

"That's breathtaking and it's basically saying, they shouldn't have gone. What does that say about the thinking of the upper management that's in place today," said Cohen.

WATCH: Cohen on how WWP handled fallout | If WWP can restore trust | WWP used as PR teaching tool | Lynnsey Gardner reads email excerpts to Cohen

Cohen said what's missing is "I'm sorry" and the board chair did not do that on Monday during an interview on CBS This Morning.

"The evidence against the management at Wounded Warrior seems pretty compelling," said Cohen. "At this point what they should be doing is saying 'I'm sorry' and saying it over and over again and say it publicly and saying it privately to their employees, to their donors, their clients they've broken trust."

Sources told News4JAX the staff found out about the firings through media reports on Thursday.

The public relations firm hired by the WWP Board of Directors said the employees were notified the same time a press release went out to the public on Thursday at 7:25 p.m.

News4JAX's reports on the firings aired around 5:30 p.m. that day.

READ: Emails between Lynnsey Gardner and PR firm about timing of employee notification

News4JAX obtained an email that was sent to the staff on Friday afternoon with a copy of the press release attached.

"Teammates, at the request of the Board of Directors, I am sharing the attached press release," wrote Ayla Tezel, Executive Vice President of Communications.

LINK: Ayla Tezel's WWP profile

Cohen said the board needs to consider falling on its own sword that it missed fiduciary responsibility in oversight and are now not handling this crisis well.

WWP posted on Facebook Tuesday afternoon that it made some mistakes along the way.

"The Board of Directors has no evidence of fraud, embezzlement or misappropriation of funds, and the decision to part ways with Steve Nardizzi and Al Giordano, who led the charge on groundbreaking and life-saving initiatives, was not based on any belief that criminal activity occurred," the post reads.

The charity has not been accused of criminal activity.

"We have already begun strengthening our policies and procedures to keep pace with our organization’s rapid growth, and we now look forward to focusing on our recently launched Warrior Care Network and continuing to provide critical support through 20 free programs and services to this nation’s wounded veterans and their families," the post reads.

Cohen said in months and years to come, Wounded Warrior Project's response, or lack thereof, will be taught in public relations classes as a "classic example of what not to do."

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