Newly released State Department emails help reveal how a major Clinton Foundation donor was placed on a sensitive government intelligence advisory board even though he had no obvious experience in the field, a decision that appeared to baffle the department’s professional staff.
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The emails further reveal how, after inquiries from ABC News, the Clinton staff sought to “protect the name” of the Secretary, “stall” the ABC News reporter and ultimately accept the resignation of the donor just two days later.
Copies of dozens of internal emails were provided to ABC News by the conservative political group Citizens United, which obtained them under the Freedom of Information Act after more the two years of litigation with the government.
A prolific fundraiser for Democratic candidates and contributor to the Clinton Foundation, who later traveled with Bill Clinton on a trip to Africa, Rajiv K. Fernando’s only known qualification for a seat on the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) was his technological know-how. The Chicago securities trader, who specialized in electronic investing, sat alongside an august collection of nuclear scientists, former cabinet secretaries and members of Congress to advise Hillary Clinton on the use of tactical nuclear weapons and on other crucial arms control issues.
“We had no idea who he was,” one board member told ABC News.
Fernando’s lack of any known background in nuclear security caught the attention of several board members, and when ABC News first contacted the State Department in August 2011 seeking a copy of his resume, the emails show that confusion ensued among the career government officials who work with the advisory panel.
“I have spoken to [State Department official and ISAB Executive Director Richard Hartman] privately, and it appears there is much more to this story that we’re unaware of,” wrote Jamie Mannina, the press aide who fielded the ABC News request. “We must protect the Secretary’s and Under Secretary’s name, as well as the integrity of the Board. I think it’s important to get down to the bottom of this before there’s any response.
“As you can see from the attached, it’s natural to ask how he got onto the board when compared to the rest of the esteemed list of members,” Mannina wrote, referring to an attachment that was not included in the recent document release.
Fernando himself would not answer questions from ABC News in 2011 about what qualified him for a seat on the board or led to his appointment. When ABC News finally caught up with Fernando at the 2012 Democratic convention, he became upset and said he was "not at liberty" to speak about it. Security threatened to have the ABC News reporter arrested.
Fernando's expertise appeared to be in the arena of high-frequency trading -- a form of computer-generated stock trading. At the time of his appointment, he headed a firm, Chopper Trading, that was a leader in that field.
Fernando's history of campaign giving dated back at least to 2003 and was prolific -- and almost exclusively to Democrats. He was an early supporter of Hillary Clinton's 2008 bid for president, giving maximum contributions to her campaign, and to HillPAC, in 2007 and 2008. He also served as a fundraising bundler for Clinton, gathering more than $100,000 from others for her White House bid. After Barack Obama bested Clinton for the 2008 nomination, Fernando became a major fundraiser for the Obama campaign. Prior to his State Department appointment, Fernando had given between $100,000 and $250,000 to the William J. Clinton Foundation, and another $30,000 to a political advocacy group, WomenCount, that indirectly helped Hillary Clinton retire her lingering 2008 campaign debts by renting her campaign email list.
The appointment qualified Fernando for one of the highest levels of top secret access, the emails show. Among those with whom Fernando served on the International Security Advisory Board was David A. Kay, the former head of the Iraq Survey Group and United Nations Chief Weapons Inspector; Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a former National Security Advisor to two presidents; two former congressmen; and former Sen. Chuck Robb. William Perry, the former Secretary of Defense, chaired the panel.
“It is certainly a serious, knowledgeable and experienced group of experts,” said Bruce Blair, a Princeton professor whose principal research covers the technical and policy steps on the path toward the verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons. “Much of the focus has been on questions of nuclear stability and the risks of nuclear weapons use by Russia and Pakistan.”
The newly released emails reveal that after ABC News started asking questions in August 2011, a State Department official who worked with the advisory board couldn’t immediately come up with a justification for Fernando serving on the panel. His and other emails make repeated references to “S”; ABC News has been told this is a common way to refer to the Secretary of State.
“The true answer is simply that S staff (Cheryl Mills) added him,” wrote Wade Boese, who was Chief of Staff for the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, in an email to Mannina, the press aide. “Raj was not on the list sent to S; he was added at their insistence.”
Mills, a former deputy White House counsel, was serving as Clinton’s chief of staff at the time, and has been a longtime legal and political advisor.
Four minutes later, Boese wrote to his boss, Richard Hartman, to alert him that Ellen Tauscher, who was then the Undersecretary for State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, would be meeting with Mills to devise a response to the ABC News request.
“Sorry this has become a headache,” he wrote.
Hartman wrote the next morning to say he would “come up and brief you... about where Raj Fernando stands and the ABC News investigative journalist inquiries. You do need to hear about it.” Separately, in an email to another official, Hartman noted that it was "Cheryl Mills, who added Mr. Fernando’s name to the list of ISAB nominees."
When ABC News sent a follow-up inquiry about the qualifications of another board appointee, Massachusetts state Rep. Harold P. Naughton, Jr., Boese wrote to Hartman to say the department would have a far easier time explaining Naughton’s credentials. “The case for Rep. Naughton is an easy one. We are on solid ground,” he said.
By this point, Fernando himself had been looped into the discussion. He and Hartman exchanged emails, but the entire text of Fernando’s letter was redacted by the State Department prior to its release.
Twice, Mannina was instructed to stall with ABC News, before Mills sent a public statement. It announced Fernando’s abrupt decision to step down.
“Mr. Fernando chose to resign from the Board earlier this month citing additional time needed to devote to his business,” it reads, noting that membership on the board was required to be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed by the advisory committee.”
“As President and CEO of Chopper Trading, Mr. Fernando brought a unique perspective to ISAB. He has years of experience in the private sector in implementing sophisticated risk management tools, information technology and international finance,” the statement says.
The statement was emailed to ABC News two days after Fernando’s resignation and four days after the initial ABC News inquiry.
Fernando’s letter of resignation to Clinton says he “intended to devote a substantial amount of time to the work of ISAB in furtherance of its objectives. However, the unique, unexpected, and excessive volatility in the international markets these last few weeks and months require[d him] to focus [his] energy on the operations of [his] company.”
Additional emails collected from Hillary Clinton’s personal server only hint at her possible involvement in Fernando’s selection to the board. The records request for documents about Fernando’s appointment produced a chain of correspondence from 2010 with the subject line “ISAB” -- or International Security Advisory Board. In those, Mills writes, “The secretary had two other names she wanted looked at.” The names are redacted. Mills then forwarded the response to “H,” which is the designation for Clinton’s personal account. Three minutes later Clinton forwards the email chain to another State official and says simply, “Pls print.”
The Clinton campaign declined requests from ABC News to make Mills available for an interview. Campaign spokesman Nick Merrill deferred to the U.S. State Department, which issued a statement saying the board’s charter specifically calls for a membership that reflects “a balance of backgrounds and points of view. Furthermore, it is not unusual for the State Department Chief of Staff to be involved in personnel matters.”
Fernando did not respond to messages left by ABC News at home and mobile numbers listed for Fernando, nor to a letter left at the office of his current business.
Today State Department spokesperson Mark Toner told reporters that Fernando had been fully vetted, but Toner said he could not speak to his specific qualifications. When asked if he came from a security background, Toner said, “I don’t believe so.”
“I apologize, I don’t have his [resume] in front of me,” Toner said. “All I know is that the charter does lay out or stipulate that [they're] looking for a broad range of experiences. It’s not unimaginable that a businessman, an international businessman, might bring a certain level of expertise or knowledge or experience to such a job.”
The State Department’s website lists former members of the ISAB, but Fernando’s name is not among them. Toner was unable to explain why the name was missing and when asked if the list was comprehensive, said, “Apparently not.”
As is customary with a new administration, the make-up of the board changed substantially when Clinton took over the State Department, according to Amb. James Woolsey, who served on the panel from 2006 to 2009. But the seriousness of its mission remained the same.
He said the board’s primary purpose was to gather an array of experts on nuclear weapons and arms control to constantly assess and update the nation’s nuclear strategy.
“Most things that involve nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy are dealt with at a pretty sensitive basis -- top secret,” he said, noting that participants meet in a secure facility and are restricted in what materials they can discuss.
That is not typically the realm of political donors, Woolsey said. Though, he added, it would not be impossible for someone lacking a security background to make a contribution to the panel. “It would depend on how smart and dedicated this person was... I would think you would have to devote some real time to getting up to speed,” he said.
Fernando is now a board member of a private group called the American Security Project, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan organization created to educate the American public and the world about the changing nature of national security in the 21st Century.” He also identifies himself online as a member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and says he's involved with a Washington think tank.
And he continued to donate to Democrats, and to Clinton. He emerged as one of the first “bundlers” to raise money for Clinton’s 2016 bid. And in July 2015, he hosted a fundraiser for Clinton at his Chicago home. Fernando has also continued to donate to the Clinton Foundation. He now is listed on the charity’s website as having given between $1 million and $5 million.
About six months after Fernando resigned from the State Department advisory board, he was invited to attend a White House State Dinner, honoring the British Prime Minister. And this summer Fernando will serve as a super delegate at the Democratic National Convention. According to Chicago media reports, he has committed to supporting Clinton.
ABC News' Andrea GonzalesPaul contributed to this report.
The following emails were obtained by the conservative political group Citizens United, which obtained them under the Freedom of Information Act, and were provided to ABC News. ABC News has arranged the emails in chronological order. Scroll through the emails below or CLICK HERE to open them in a new window.