A veterans group sold a $250,000 sponsorship including tickets to a recent forum featuring Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America sold the VIP package to the Sept. 7 Commander-in-Chief Forum, co-hosted by NBC. The sponsorship came with five tickets to the event, access to an after-party, gift bags and social media recognition, among other perks, according to a flyer advertising the deal.
Paul Rieckhoff, co-founder of the New York City-based organization, said the move was designed to help offset the expense of organizing the forum, which was moderated by NBC's Matt Lauer and held at Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City.
"IAVA is a non-profit organization that shouldered significant costs as a host of this historic event," he said in an email to Military.com. "Unlike our broadcast partners, we did not have the option of offsetting those costs by revenue via on-air advertising sales."
NBC was not aware of the sponsorship sale, a network official said. Although selling tickets to the forum through a sponsorship didn't violate network policy, NBC didn't sell sponsorships for the event because doing so would hurt the integrity of the forum, the official said.
The event featured a few hundred seats. Both IAVA and NBC distributed free tickets to certain members of the media, other vets organizations and the public. IAVA also held a random drawing via its website for airfare, hotel accommodations and forum tickets for one winner and a guest. The organization was given about 30 tickets -- less than 10 percent of the available seats, the network official said.
Of the five tickets for the IAVA sponsor, which wasn't identified, Rieckhoff said, "Our sponsor actually didn't use the seats (as often happens) and we gave them to vets. Our honored guests included vets, Gold Star and military family members."
The forum itself was noteworthy because it was the first time both presidential candidates would appear on the same stage, albeit at different times. It was designed to focus on veterans issues, though the candidates spent most of the time talking about military and national security topics.
Journalists from Military.com sought but didn't receive permission to cover the event in person.
In August, shortly after the forum was announced, Claire Owens, press secretary for IAVA, said in an email her organization planned to release "information on credentialing in the coming weeks." But she didn't respond to subsequent calls and emails from Military.com.
In September, another IAVA employee, Lauren Augustine, a legislative associate, referred questions about press passes to Erika Masonhall, a vice president of communications at NBC, who ultimately denied Military.com's request to attend the event.
"Unfortunately due to limited space at the venue, we are only able to accommodate the candidates' protective press pools -- no other outside media," she wrote in an email.
The restrictions on media may have stemmed in part from a decision by NBC producers to seek a demographically balanced audience. There was a shortage of Latino veterans and Republican veterans supporting Trump, and the producers wanted to fill those gaps, according to an individual who spoke to an NBC producer about the forum.
IAVA reported overall revenue of $7.5 million in 2014, an increase of $1.3 million, or 21 percent, from $6.2 million in 2013, according to public tax documents compiled by the website www.charitynavigator.org.
Rieckhoff's salary increased at a higher rate during that period. As chief executive officer, Rieckhoff earned $254,412 in 2014, an increase of $108,912, or 75 percent, from $145,500 in 2013, the documents show.
The site, which didn't list figures for 2015, gives the organization an overall score of 86 out of 100 for financial and accountability and transparency.
-- Brendan McGarry contributed to this report.