A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that State Department officials and top aides to Hillary Clinton should be questioned under oath about whether they intentionally thwarted federal open records laws by using or allowing the use of a private email server throughout Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of Washington came in a lawsuit over public records brought by Judicial Watch, a conservative legal watchdog group, regarding its May 2013 request for information about the employment arrangement of Huma Abedin, a longtime Clinton aide.
Officials with the State and Justice departments said that they were aware of the order but declined to comment further, citing the ongoing litigation. Discovery orders are not readily appealable. An attorney for Abedin declined to comment.
Sullivan set an April 12 deadline for parties to litigate a detailed investigative plan–subject to court approval–that would reach well beyond the limited and carefully worded explanations of the use of the private server that department and Clinton officials have given.
Sullivan also suggested from the bench that he might at some point order the department to subpoena Clinton and Abedin to return all emails related to Clinton’s private account, not just records their camps previously deemed work-related and returned.
“There has been a constant drip, drip, drip of declarations. When does it stop?” Sullivan said, “This case is about the public’s right to know.”
In granting Judicial Watch’s request, Sullivan said that months of piecemeal revelations about Clinton and the State Department’s handling of the email controversy created “at least a ‘reasonable suspicion’ ” that public access to official government records under the federal Freedom of Information Act was undermined.
Sullivan noted that there was no dispute that senior State Department officials were aware of the email set-up from time Clinton took office, citing a January 2009 email exchange including Undersecretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy, Clinton chief of staff Cheryl D. Mills and Abedin about establishing a “stand-alone network” email system.
Sullivan said the State Department’s inspector general last month faulted the department and Clinton’s office for overseeing processes that repeatedly allowed “inaccurate and incomplete” FOIA responses, including a May 2013 reply that found “no records” concerning email accounts Clinton used, even though dozens of senior officials had corresponded with her private account.
In a statement, Judicial Watch President Thomas J. Fitton called the ruling “a major victory” for the public, and did not rule out that Clinton could become one of the current and former department officials whose testimony his group would seek.
“The court-ordered discovery will help determine why the State Department and Mrs. Clinton, even despite receiving numerous FOIA requests, kept the record system secret for years,” Fitton said. “While Mrs. Clinton’s testimony may not be required initially, it may happen that her testimony is necessary for the Court to resolve the legal issues about her unprecedented email practices.”
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