A top aide to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to mock the appointment of a major Democratic donor with little experience to a sensitive government intelligence board allowing him the highest levels of top secret access.
Rajiv Fernando, who contributed to Clinton, her family’s foundation and Barack Obama, was named to the International Security Advisory Board in 2011, though he resigned days later after his appointment was questioned.
“Couldn’t he have landed a spot on the President’s Physical Fitness Council?” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Philippe Reines wrote in a State Department email in 2012 to two other Clinton aides.
The newly released emails were provided to McClatchy by the conservative political group Citizens United, which obtained them through a lawsuit filed after its Freedom of Information Act requests went unanswered.
Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, faces a barrage of questions about whether she helped her family foundation collect millions of dollars from questionable countries and organizations when she was secretary of state.
In a blistering speech Wednesday, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, accused Clinton of making deals for donations to the foundation while she ran the State Department.
Trump mentioned Fernando, though not by name, saying she appointed a top donor to a national security board with top secret access. “Even though he had no national security credentials, although he did make a very large campaign contribution,” Trump said.
Several government watchdog groups say the foundation will continue to cause problems for Clinton.
“Should Hillary Clinton become president, the Clinton Foundation would be a hot mess of real and potential conflicts of interest,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.
Fernando, appointed to the International Security Advisory Board, was to advise Clinton on nuclear weapons and other security issues alongside nuclear scientists, former cabinet secretaries and former lawmakers, including former Defense Secretary William Perry, Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a former National Security Adviser to two presidents; and former Sen. Chuck Robb of Virginia.
After ABC News contacted the State Department to ask about his qualifications, which includes no international security background, Fernando announced that he had stepped down.
In September 2012, after ABC News again questioned the State Department about Fernando’s appointment, senior adviser Heather Samuelson sent Reines a response provided to ABC News explaining why he was chosen. Chief of staff Cheryl Mills was copied on the emails.
“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 response said.
Reines responded to Samuelson: “Not the most compelling response I’ve ever seen since it’s such a dense topic the board resolves around. Couldn’t he have landed a spot on the President’s Physical Fitness Council?”
In recent weeks, emails obtained by Citizens United show the appointment perplexed the State Department’s professional staff, according to ABC News, and that dozens of State Department officials worked overtime to quickly obtain Fernando's security clearance, according to FOX News.
Fernando, who heads a trading firm he founded in 2002, served as a voluntary fundraiser or bundler for Clinton's first presidential campaign and later Obama. He also gave $30,000 to a political advocacy group, WomenCount, that has indirectly helped Clinton.
He contributed between $1 million and $5 million to the Clinton Foundation, according to records released by the foundation. Between $100,000 and $250,000 was donated before his board appointment. He once traveled with former President Bill Clinton to Africa.
In July, Clinton attended a fundraiser at Fernando's home for her second presidential campaign. About 170 people paid $2,700 to get into the event, according to the campaign. Hosts raised $27,000 or more.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner recently defended Fernando's appointment.
“The board should reflect, according to its charter, a balance of background, points of view, so he was chosen as part of that process of trying to choose members that represent a broad range of views,” Toner told reporters. “It’s not unusual for, as I said, a broad range of individuals to be vetted and chosen for these kinds of positions.”