JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Wounded Warrior Project is the nation’s best-known charity that helps veterans, and is headquartered here in Jacksonville.
But there are allegations of over-spending, ego, partying and alcohol use that led News4Jax to launch a three-week investigation, studying financial statements and speaking to former employees about reports of lavish spending, the warrior programs and the culture both inside and out.
The results gave stunning insight as to what is going on behind the front lines of one of America’s largest charities of any kind, entrusted with hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
Three former employees are speaking out on the record to reveal what they say they saw first hand. “Carol” and “Sandra”, whose identities and real names we agreed to be concealed, want to share a message of fear and power they both say they witnessed and experienced.
Erick Millette, who’s a wounded warrior himself and also a former employee at the charity, is revealing his identity in the hopes of letting the public know his insight into WWP. (Watch uncut interview with Erick Millette)
“I think the American public would be shocked,” said Carol.
“It's fear. It's the power,” said Sandra. “They are a machine.”
News4Jax obtained video from a WWP event in 2014 of the group's CEO Steve Nardizzi rappelling down the side of the Broadmoor, a five-star resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
That 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.
News4Jax also obtained a picture of the charity's senior management driving a Jeep inside the Broadmoor to make their way to the stage with Nardizzi.
This team-building trip is known as the “All Hands Huddle,” and it happens every year.
“We'd go on these big trips, it was a big drunk fest,” said Sandra. “Everybody left there hung-over or tired because they partied all night, but never going, ‘Oh wow, let's change lives.’ No. ’Let's go do that.’ No.”’
In another picture from 2012, Nardizzi is seen riding a horse into a retreat at a Texas resort hotel. And in 2011, he rode a Segway through fake fog into an Orlando hotel.
“Many of us thought it was so extravagant and there was no need for it,” Carol said.
Sandra said every year, the trip got bigger and more lavish.
“I remember new employees thinking, ‘I feel kind of funny. This doesn't feel right,’” Sandra explained. “It's perception. That's what they don't understand.”
Both former employees admit WWP terminated them. They say in part, for voicing concerns over spending. But they add they were just part of a continuous, massive turnover.
WWP confirmed that turn over among its 600 employees is more than 20 percent a year.
“If you rocked the bus as they say, you were off the bus,” said Carol.
Both women worked inside Jacksonville’s WWP headquarters on the Southside for years. They say they watched it grow from a small grassroots non-profit, to the largest veterans’ service organization in America. Forbes magazine ranks it the 38th largest charity of any kind in the United States.
As it’s grown, both Carol and Sandra said so did the excess and the waste.
“I think they've gotten away from those six words honoring and empowering wounded warriors,” said Carol.
As mentioned, Erick Millette is a wounded warrior and former WWP employee himself, and he said he agrees with Carol.
“I would not encourage anyone to donate to the Wounded Warrior Project,” he said. “I was part of it and I'm ashamed to say that, but I've seen it. It’s donor money wasted.”
Millette spent nearly two years traveling the country giving speeches under the charity's Warriors Speak program. He said he told the audience about his two deployments to Iraq and how he survived a blast of nine IEDs and being awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal With Valor. But after being on the inside, Millette said he quit the WWP, disgusted and disillusioned.
“Besides ‘All Hands’ and the lavish spending, there is team building. Team building is not bowling. Team building is not going to Sweet Pete's and having a nice lunch and drinks,” Millette said. “Team building is not hanging out at the bar and WWP picking up the tab. That's not team building.”
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.
Fast-growing donor support for
With that influx in donor cash came a shift, according to all three former employees.
“I feel like they lost their focus. It was more on ego,” said Sandra.
Nardizzi is a lawyer, not a military veteran. He says he comes from a military family, where his father and uncle both served in World War II.
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.
News4Jax tried several times to take these allegations to the CEO, or any senior management since mid-January, but were told their schedules were “too busy.” Instead of giving News4Jax access to any executive that could speak on the record about specifics of WWP, the charity wanted to only focus the attention on the work the organization has done helping veterans.
However, WWP did provide one local wounded warrior, Alex Brown, who talked about the help he has received, programs he says were life changing.
“As much as they've done for me, my family and a bunch of my friends, it is surprising to see they got a C,” said Brown, who is a Jacksonville native and was injured in Iraq as a U.S. Marine.
Brown credits WWP with helping him deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and his traumatic brain injury. From his perspective, he said the controversy surrounding fundraising and non-program spending is unimportant.
“When I reached out to Wounded Warrior Project, it was a life changer for me. They saved my life,” Brown said.
Brown talked with News4Jax inside the charity's Jacksonville headquarters and was only allowed to conduct the interview if WWP cameras recorded as well. It’s something News4Jax has never seen before.
When asked what the perception was of WWP among his fellow comrades, Brown said, “It's about 50/50. You got 50 percent who know what they stand for and what they do and the other 50 percent bad mouth them because they had one bad experience.”
But the three former employees who spoke on the record with News4Jax contend, those experiences is where the help stops for most veterans.
Carol said, “It was kind of the glitz and glamour, get them to a Giants game, get them to a Jaguars Game. OK, so you did that, but did you do anything else for them?”
For Brown, he's proud to count himself among the charity's 83,000 alumni members.
But when News4Jax asked Sandra if she thought WWP helps all of their alumni members, even a vast majority, she said, “No way. No way.”
“A soldier ride in that moment does help,” Sandra added. “But then they go away and then they go back to drinking or doing drugs and that's a big picture.”
“There is no follow up care. No case management,” said Millette. “There is a saying at Wounded Warrior Project, 'Warriors call us, we don't call them.'”
The former employees said the problem is the charity is a Band-Aid, or only provides superficial care, not long-term care.
“A lot of these warriors were helped one time and that was it,” said Carol.
Brown disagrees with Carol and thinks differently about WWP.
“They're very welcoming and friendly. I know a lot of people think they aren't that but they are. You have to reach out, you can't expect them to reach out to you,” Brown said.
But Carol, Sandra and Millette all feel the waterfall of donor cash could be put to better use.
“I hope that this story opens they eyes of a lot of people, mainly the donors,” said Millette. “As warriors, as veterans ourselves, we aren't going to stand for it.”
In the lobby and all throughout the building is a sign with the core values of the Wounded Warrior Project – F.I.L.I.S. This acronym stands for Fun, Integrity, Loyalty, Innovation and Service. But News4Jax has spoken with nearly a dozen people who said therein lies the problem: “Service for the warriors should be above all else, not fun.”
Copyright 2016 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.