JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The new chief executive hired to steady the Wounded Warrior Project after investigations by the I-TEAM, other media and the Senate Judiciary Committee reported how the nonprofit spent millions of dollars in contributions spoke out for the first time Thursday.
Unlike CEO of the Jacksonville nonprofit ousted earlier in the year whose background was as a lawyer, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington brings 35 years of military experience to the job.
Linnington, a West Point graduate and married father of two, served as deputy to the under secretary of defense for two years. He saw combat, commanding teams in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In his most recent role as the first permanent director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, he welcomed home injured military and helped them receive services to integrate into civilian life.
"Watching what they overcame, how they overcome the challenges they were provided really was something inspirational to me," Linnington said.
That experience pushed him to fight for the job at Wounded Warrior Project in order to reestablish the organization's mission. He wants injured veterans to know that he's focused on their needs.
"To our warriors that have served since 9/11 that need help, if you hear my voice and you need help, please get help," Linnington said. "Call us, and if we can't help, we'll connect you with those that can."
Linnington said in his new position, he answers to the public.
"We are ultimately accountable to those warriors we serve and to the American people that provide the resources to us that take care of those warriors," Linnington said. "So we have to be completely accountable, transparent and as efficient and as effective as we can be with the resources that we have to administer those programs to maximum impact."
The public image of the old regime included video of ousted CEO Steve Nardizzi rappelling down the side of a five-star hotel during an annual employee conference. At other meetings, Nardizzi rode into a conference on a horse and on a Segway. Those images epitomized extravagant spending by and for executives at the nonprofit.
Nardizzi and Chief Operating Officer Al Giordano were ousted in March after a six-week independent review of the charity's finances and culture. The charity's board of directors said that the leadership changes were needed to "restore trust in the organization among all of the constituencies WWP serves."
Fast-growing donations to Wounded Warrior Project
Linnington said the was no annual employee meeting scheduled this year, and he also plans to trim the number of executives receiving six-figure salaries, according to the most recent document. When he came in the organization, there were 16 executive vice presidents.
"So perceptions are reality. I regret the perception being out there that we've not shepherded the resources we (were) given to the maximum impact, and those reports are what's caused us to look at ourselves and what is focusing me to look at ourselves for how we can do better," Linnington said. "Especially to all the donors who get money to Warrior Project and, interestingly enough, throughout this whole controversy."
Employees fired by the nonprofit have told the I-TEAM about a culture of fear that existed under the previous management team. Erick Millette was the only former employee to go public with allegations of lavish spending on staff and not on their clients and helped blow the doors open on the organization's practices.
News4Jax played Linnington's entire interview for Millette.
"It's very promising to listen to the interview and see where he's coming from, and he's focused on mission and values and putting them back in line," Millette said. "Because when this started, this wasn't an attack on WWP, it was an attack on their frivolous spending and the culture."
Millette was encouraged that the organization is now led by a man with a military background.
"He has seen combat. I especially like he brought up the invisible wounds of war, because WWP in the past targeted such a small population with marketing and advertising of those that are severely wounded," Millette said.
A Senate Judiciary Committee investigation found Wounded Warrior Project's claim it spend 80 percent of its funds on veteran services was inflated. Investigators found that 33 percent of that amount was free advertising and media.
"I'm sure I'll have to apologize for lots of things in my future that (we) all make mistakes on, but it will come from a good place," Linnington said. "I'm going to do my very best, and I will ensure our employees do our very best in taking care of our sick, ill, injured, wounded service members and their families. And at the end of the day, I don't want them to sacrifice from bad press or mismanagement or anything that might take place in the future that I'm responsible for, so I want to be held accountable for what happens in the future."
Beth Levine, spokeswoman for the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued this statement Thursday:
Senator (Chuck) Grassley continues to look at the Wounded Warrior Project’s spending and services to veterans. His staff is scheduled to meet with the new chief executive officer and the chief financial officer on Aug. 10, at the organization’s request. Outstanding questions from Senator Grassley include the accuracy of the amounts the organization is spending on veterans, why there is no written work product for the “independent review” of spending practices that was done, the justification to count certain educational and fundraising solicitations as spending on behalf of veterans, and significant concerns about the organization’s long-term support trust. In addition to getting answers to these questions, Senator Grassley is interested in whether the new leadership will change course and take public concerns into consideration to devote more of the Wounded Warrior Project’s significant resources on veterans services."
While Linnington said he hasn't seen or felt evidence of intimidation of employees within Wounded Warrior Project in the visits to satellite offices nationwide and from the hundreds of emails he says he's received, he plans to conduct an anonymous survey encouraging employees to voice their opinions.
"What separates organizations that are improving from declining is our feedback from those they serve and feedback from within," he said. "You listen to that feedback. You take those suggestions. You're very transparent with focus on what you can do, you can't do, and then you just continue to improve."
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