INDIANAPOLIS (CN) - The Wounded Warrior Project claims an Indiana veterans charity defamed it and criminally deceived donors by calling it a "fraud" and a "cash cow," and telling people to send their money elsewhere if they want it to reach veterans.
The Wounded Warrior Project sued Help Indiana Vets Inc., and its founder Dean Graham, both of Acton, Ind., in Federal Court.
The Wounded Warrior Project, founded in 2003, describes itself as a nonprofit that offers tens of thousands of injured veterans free services, including counseling, physical rehabilitation, vocational training, and camaraderie through discounted events and an online community.
"WWP does not charge any membership dues for its programs and services because WWP believes the alumni paid their dues on the battlefield. In fiscal year 2013 alone, WWP served more than 30,000 injured service members and their family members through its various programs and services," the complaint states.
The Wounded Warrior Project has received extensive media coverage and corporate support, leading the 8th Circuit to write in an unrelated opinion that Wounded Warrior Project has "become synonymous with veteran service to this generation of wounded veterans and their families," according to the 31-page complaint.
Defendant Dean Graham, founder of Help Indiana Vets, who says he is a disabled veteran of the Iraq War, told Courthouse News the Wounded Warrior Project turned him away when he sought assistance after his discharge.
"I called them in the middle of my discharge from the Army," Graham said in an interview. "During that time that financially destroyed me and our family we ended up filing bankruptcy and lost everything. I contacted the project for help and was told by six different civilian employees, no, we don't give financial assistance."
Graham continued: "Once we started helping vets in Indiana, I got a call from WWP and they wanted to add us to their list of people veterans can call. So what they would do is ask people to contact local charities for help, even though they were taking donations for the WWP, and then put the burden of providing services on the local organizations."
Graham posted statements on Help Indiana Vets' website saying that Wounded Warrior Project is a "fraud," and the "best paid nonprofit ever."
The website , checked this morning, states: "Wounded Warrior Project is a Fraud."
It adds: "We have personally investigated Wounded Warriors and what we have learned is very disturbing.
"They advertise heavily on T.V. and if you pay close attention they do not show one actual thing they have done to help a Wounded Warrior.
"They show pictures and stories of Wounded Warriors and use them as a heart-tugging way to solicit donations.
"They have paid a famous country music singer Trace Adkins to further play on peoples' emotions. ...
"This organization is full of former Veterans Administration employees and former military personnel. They are pulling the biggest Oke Doke ever pulled on the American public.
"Unfortunately they are using our American Heroes to bring millions of dollars into their huge corporation. They are the best paid nonprofit ever and each one of their employees is paid a very good salary for continuing this cash cow."
Wounded Warrior's tax return for 2011 indicates that the nonprofit's total administrative expenses accounted for $95.5 million of the year's $154.9 million net revenue, or 61 percent.
"Everyone assumes that because of the name 'WWP' the money is going to help the veterans, but it's not," Graham said. "I've talked to hundreds of veterans, at least half of whom had tried WWP at one time or another, ones who called us directly for aid. We doled out over $27,000 of our own money helping the Indiana veterans."
Charity Watch gives Wounded Warrior a C+ grade, based on its expenses, though WWP met all 20 of the Better Business Bureau's standards for charity accountability.
The tax return shows that Wounded Warrior's CEO Steven Nandizzi earns an annual salary of $311,000, Executive Director Albion Giordano makes $280,000 and eight other officers make salaries of $140,000 or more.
"We're a direct service provider, dealing with some of the world's greatest social ills," Nardizzi told the Tampa Bay Times this year, responding to criticism of the charity's salaries. "We hire the best of the best and we pay them a living wage."
In its lawsuit, the Wounded Warrior Project claims numerous people have been deceived by Help Indiana Vets' claims, and have canceled their donations because of it.
The lawsuit quotes several comments left on Help Indiana Vets' website, including: "I'm glad I read your comments, because I was going to join [WWP]. It seem[s] everyone is trying to make a buck off these hero[es]. Shame on [WWP]."
Another comment says: "Very interesting. I never [k]new and proudly wear a [WWP] tee shirt all the time. Now I will just wipe my a## with it!"
Wounded Warrior Project claims it also received direct emails from former supporters who believed the accusations made by Indiana Vets.
The comments and emails show the Wounded Warrior Project "has, and will continue to suffer irreparable harm as a result of defendants false and misleading statements of fact," the group says in its complaint.
Graham told Courthouse News: "For me this is a big slap in the face, for a large organization like them to come to Indiana and file a suit against a small nonprofit like us. ... I don't want anything from them other than to release the money to all the wounded warriors out there, which is what it's really for. What they claim to give to vets and what they actually give are two different things."
The Wounded Warriors Project seeks an injunction, disgorgement, and treble damages for false advertising, criminal deception, defamation, unfair competition, tortious interference, and unjust enrichment.
It is represented by John Passarelli with Kutak Rock in Omaha, who did not respond to a request for comment.
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