Feud erupts at Wounded Warrior Project between board and founder
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 30, 2016
WASHINGTON — The Wounded Warrior Project found itself at the epicenter of another controversy Wednesday, this time between its board of directors and the charity’s founder John Melia, who joined his brother in calling for the organization’s board chairman to step down.
The board canceled an April 4 meeting with Melia and his brother without explanation. The Melias said the board feared the meeting would expose the board’s “complicity in the financial mismanagement at WWP,” which led to the dismissal of the two top executives this month.
In a statement Wednesday on Facebook, the Melias called for board chairman Anthony Odierno to step down.
“I have got to think they are trying to hide something,” Melia told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday. “Why wouldn’t they meet with the founder of the organization? I mean, how does that serve them not to meet with me?”
The board charged in a statement that the Melias were unreliable because they disclosed the upcoming meeting when it was supposed to be confidential, and that they were out for their own personal agenda.
The jousting follows the removal earlier this month of the organization’s two top executives, chief executive officer Steven Nardizzi and chief operating officer Al Giordano, after news investigations that highlighted lavish spending, including extravagant parties and events, and cited dozens of former staff members describing a toxic leadership culture at the popular veterans charity.
After the executives were removed, Odierno stepped in as interim CEO while the board searched for a replacement. Shortly afterward, Melia came forward publicly for the first time since he’d been ousted six years ago and offered to take on a renewed leadership role.
The meeting with the board was set for April 4, but canceled Tuesday.
In a series of statements on Facebook, the Melias lashed out at Odierno and the board for allowing trust in the charity to become so eroded under the board’s watch.
“We believe that Mr. Odierno was completely and inexcusably deficient in executing his duties and that he should have absolutely no role in choosing the new executive team at the Wounded Warrior Project,” the statement said. “Allowing Mr. Odierno, who failed to execute his appointed fiduciary duties, to choose the new executive team would be ludicrous.”
The board issued a statement through a public relations firm Wednesday saying that it set up a meeting with Melia on his request on condition it was “confidential and not publicized,” but within hours, news reports were citing Melia about the meeting in New York.
“At a time when every employee at WWP is working so hard to pull together and focus on the important work done by the organization, the Melias are attacking the organization to promote their personal agenda,” the statement said.
“It is crucial to the proper functioning of the Board and the WWP that we can rely on those with whom we are dealing,” the board said. “The Melias’ conduct in this instance, and others, is not in keeping with how we wish to do business and unfortunately the Board had to make the decision to cancel the meeting.”
Melia said that after the meeting was arranged, he received a call from Odierno asking him not to share anything about it.
“I thought he meant the content,” Melia said. “We have a couple of thousand people following us who are looking for transparency. We thought it would be viewed as a good thing that they were meeting with us.”
“Tony Odierno doesn’t tell me what to do,” he added.
Melia made no bones about the fact that he’s bitter about the way he was ousted in 2009, when Nardizzi took over as CEO.
“I haven’t shied away from that,” he said. “It is sour grapes. When the organization you founded hasn’t talked to you in six years, there’s amends that have to be made.”
“But it’s also professional,” he added. “Part of restoring trust is restoring my trust as the founder.”
Melia said he and his brother Jim wanted to find out the tone and tenor of the board before deciding whether they would work with it. But he reiterated his concerns about the way WWP spending has mushroomed in recent years, along with its influence.
In a Facebook post titled “Wounded Warrior Project board of directors turns its back on founders,” Melia said the board has been aware of issues “in regard to excessive salaries and other irregularities” since 2011 but had “failed to act, eroding the public trust in WWP.”
These included questionable grants, hiring a fundraising group that had been accused of irregularities, support for a nonprofit that lobbies for increased overhead allowances for charities, and the reduction of the number of board members from 14 to six.
Melia said he would continue to “stay on the phone” and press for the removal of Odierno, son of retired Army Gen. Raymond Odierno. But he had pretty much resigned himself to the fact that he was not going to hold any position at WWP under this board.
“If they sink themselves, it will be a damn shame for our country,” he said. “They need new leaders at WWP."