Clay Pell’s résumé comes under closer scrutiny

Clay Pell smiles during his announcement for governor of Rhode Island in January 2014. (photo: Stephan Savoia/AP)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Clay Pell has compiled a lengthy résumé in the nine years since he received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, an employment history that is drawing more scrutiny as it comes under fire from one of his rivals.

In a TV attack ad released last week, the campaign of Providence Mayor Angel Taveras mocked Pell for having “had nine jobs in the past eight years – two of them internships” while spending “less than 18 months of that in Rhode Island.” The commercial is the first attack on Pell by one of his opponents since he began gaining traction this summer.

Pell has actually had only two full-time permanent jobs since finishing law school, according to a review of public information, statements made by Pell and details provided by his campaign. The first job was nearly four years on active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard – a portion of which was spent as a White House National Security Council aide – and the second was a short stint in the U.S. Department of Education.

Pell – whose full name is Herbert Claiborne Pell IV – was born on Nov. 17, 1981, in Tucson, Arizona. His father was the late Herbert Claiborne “Bertie” Pell III, the oldest child of former U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, and his mother is Eugenia Stillman Diehl Pell, an artist who still lives in Tuscon.

Bertie and Eugenia met as students at the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1960s. They got married in 1969, the year they graduated, at a Presbyterian church in Virginia, according to an archived wedding announcement. The couple moved to Tucson in 1973, after Bertie finished serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, and they had a daughter, Christina, before Clay.

Devin Driscoll, Pell’s campaign manager, said as a young man Clay Pell “split his time between Arizona and Rhode Island,” often visiting Sen. Pell and his wife, the late Nuala Pell, at their home in Newport while he was growing up.

Pell was only 17 when his father died at Rhode Island Hospital in 1999 following a long battle with cancer, according to an obituary in the Princeton Alumni Weekly. The obituary said Bertie had been an executive at four Arizona-based automotive companies as well as Valley National, a regional bank later acquired by Bank One Corp.

“His dream was to be a businessman. He worked hard and with honesty to start businesses and to make them grow,” Pell recalled of his father in his campaign kickoff speech in January. “Unfortunately, his businesses fell to the savings-and-loan crisis that affected so many, and our family spent several years in bankruptcy.”

Federal records confirm that Pells’ parents filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing consumer and business debt, in August 1990 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Tucson.

As a teenager, Pell spent some of his time in Southern California. He enrolled at The Thacher School, an elite co-ed boarding school, during his sophomore year of high school, though he spent his junior year as an exchange student in Spain, according to Driscoll.

At Thacher, Pell “never did sit still for very long, impressive achievements racking up with his every activity,” a news item on the school’s website reported. He edited a school publication, led the Spanish Club, played on the tennis team and was a leader in his dorm, serving as senior prefect, the news item said.

“Clay always demonstrated a keen public spirit as a student at Thacher,” Michael Mulligan, the school’s headmaster, wrote in 2011. “Even as a teen, he was an eloquent advocate of the importance of serving others and contributing to the commonweal.”

After graduating from Thacher, Pell spent a year abroad as an exchange student in China at Princeton University’s Beijing campus, Driscoll said. He then enrolled at Harvard College, earning a bachelor’s degree “with high honors in Social Studies and a Citation in Modern Standard Arabic,” according to a later biographical sketch.

Pell’s interest in foreign languages and other countries was thus already clear by the time he arrived in Cambridge to earn his undergraduate degree. The Harvard Crimson reported that during college Pell served as president of a student group called Bhumi, which was formed to raise awareness about international development, and his campaign says he’s been to more than 90 countries over the course of his life.

In October 2002, early in Pell’s second year at Harvard, he incorporated an apparently short-lived nonprofit in Massachusetts called AmericansCare Inc., according to records on file with the secretary of state’s office there. He listed his address as Pforzheimer House, a residence hall at Harvard.

Archived Web pages show AmericansCare described itself as focused on domestic and foreign policy, and planned among other things to engage in “direct lobbying of the American government for more foreign aid.” On the nonprofit’s website, Pell described himself at the time as a “student, author, pilot, world traveler, and future public servant; in all these things I find freedom, purpose, and a greater dedication to opportunity for all.”

After graduating from Harvard in 2005, Pell enrolled at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. He graduated from there in 2008. (Coincidentally, both Pell and Taveras earned their undergraduate degrees at Harvard and their law degrees at Georgetown; the third major candidate in the race, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, went to college at Harvard, but then attended Yale Law School.)

“We left school together with hopes of big things,” a Georgetown classmate quipped in a Facebook message earlier this year asking friends to donate to Pell’s campaign, “like making important contributions to those in need, achieving significant positions in law and government, and marrying olympic figure skaters.” (Pell married the skater Michelle Kwan last year.)

During his Harvard and Georgetown years, Pell began to accumulate experiences that were later highlighted on his biography for the White House Fellowship program, which said: “Clay worked for the CIA, State Department, and the international law firms of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Baker & McKenzie, and Uría Menéndez.” None of those, however, were permanent positions.

The earliest of them came in 2003, when Pell interned for the U.S. State Department at the embassy in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei; he received housing but was not paid, according to Driscoll. Pell had paid positions with the CIA during the summers of 2004 and 2005, according to Driscoll, and the spy agency gave him an Exceptional Performance Award, according to Pell’s White House biography.

In 2006, Pell had a paid international clerkship with Uría Menéndez in Madrid as well as a summer associate position at R.I. Attorney General Patrick Lynch’s office, according to Driscoll. In 2007, he was a paid summer associate at both Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP in New York and Baker & McKenzie in Hong Kong, for eight weeks each, Driscoll said.

Pell has said repeatedly that he made Rhode Island his home after college, and while he’s spent considerable time outside the state since then, he did indeed identify his place of residence as Providence to The Harvard Crimson in 2006, The New York Times in 2007, and the White House in 2011. Pell bought the home on the East Side of Providence where he current lives in 2008.

Pell passed the Rhode Island bar examination shortly after his graduation from Georgetown in May 2008, Driscoll said. He applied and was admitted to the U.S. Coast Guard Direct Commission Officer Candidate School, but had time to travel before he began active-duty service in Newport in the middle of 2009, when he was 27.

Pell was commissioned as a lieutenant, which is still his rank in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. He served on active duty locally until late 2010, including as an adjunct faculty member at the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies in Newport, after which he was assigned to serve as appellate government counsel in the Coast Guard Office of Military Justice in Washington.

“Clay represented the U.S. Coast Guard before military appellate courts,” Driscoll said. “Clay was also detailed to Camp Lejeune [in North Carolina] from May to November 2010, during which time he served as a trial counsel for the Marine Corps.” Pell often refers to that period in discussing his time as a prosecutor.

Pell’s White House biography summed up his Coast Guard service by saying: “Pell executes regular Coast Guard exchanges with China to improve military diplomacy, instructs courses on human rights and military justice, and has prosecuted crimes for the U.S. Marine Corps.”

While Pell’s Coast Guard enlistment expired in April 2013, he remains a member of the Coast Guard Reserve and continues to drill once a month in East Providence, most recently earlier this month on the weekend of Aug. 2 and 3, Driscoll said.

Pell’s Coast Guard service also took him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the summer of 2011, the Obama administration announced that Pell was one of 15 young professionals selected to receive a White House Fellowship. “Selected individuals typically spend a year working as a full-time, paid Fellow to senior White House Staff, Cabinet Secretaries and other top-ranking government officials,” according to an official description posted online.

The White House became Pell’s new Coast Guard assignment, according to Driscoll. During his fellowship, Pell was tasked to serve on the National Security Council as director for strategic planning, according to his campaign. Obama’s national security advisor at the time was Rhode Island native Tom Donilon, who did not respond to an email asking about what Pell did while he was there.

Pell stayed on as director for strategic planning after his fellowship ended in September 2012. The job required him “to bring together stakeholders across the federal government … and look holistically at opportunities for their engagement in foreign policy and national security,” according to his campaign.

Seven months later, in April 2013, Obama appointed Pell to a new job in Washington, as deputy assistant secretary for international and foreign language education at the U.S. Department of Education. This required Pell to lead the International and Foreign Language Education office inside the department’s Office of Postsecondary Education.

“Mr. Pell oversees policy and programmatic efforts to encourage and promote the study of foreign languages and cultures of other countries at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels in the United States,” his department biography at the time explained. “Mr. Pell also oversees the administration of the Department of Education’s Title VI and Fulbright-Hays domestic and overseas grant programs.”

While Pell was in Washington he also began dating Kwan, a two-time Olympic medalist. He proposed to her on Block Island in September 2012, and the couple got married the following January at First Unitarian Church in Providence.

“I was nervous about wanting to do it right, but I wasn’t nervous about what the answer would be,” Pell later told People magazine. “We had been talking for a while about how we would like to have a family and the idea of getting married and what we wanted to do with our lives – and public service.”

In October 2013, six months after Obama appointed him, Pell resigned from the Department of Education to return to Rhode Island and run for governor. Back in Washington, the International and Foreign Language Education office is now led by an acting senior director rather than a deputy assistant secretary, according to its website. Driscoll said Pell’s former position “was created by statute, and is expected to be filled.”

The Taveras campaign broke down its “nine jobs in eight years” attack on Pell as encompassing his short stints at the three law firms; his service in the U.S. Coast Guard; his service in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve; his teaching role at the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies; his White House Fellowship; his director for strategic planning post; and his Department of Education appointment.

The primary is Sept. 9. The winner of the race between Pell, Taveras and Raimondo will take on the winner of the Republican primary between Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and Ken Block in November.

Ted Nesi ( ) covers politics and the economy for and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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