A federal judge warned the State Department it would "have to answer for" the destruction of Hillary Clinton's private emails if the agency doesn't "want to do anything out of the ordinary to preserve" records from her server.
U. S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras also blasted the State Department for its seemingly haphazard approach to the dozens of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits seeking Clinton's private emails.
In a July 9 hearing for a FOIA case brought by Judicial Watch, Contreras pressed the State Department to ensure Clinton's aides — at least three of whom who had their own email accounts on her private server — did not erase records subject to the lawsuit before an upcoming legal deadline.
"If documents are destroyed between now and Aug. 17, the government will have to answer for that, and, you know, if they don't want to do anything out of the ordinary to preserve between now and then, they can make that choice," Contreras said during the hearing. "I will allow them to make that choice, but they will answer for it, if something happens."
Chris Fedeli, an attorney with Judicial Watch, highlighted the unusual circumstances that has forced the State Department to request emails from Huma Abedin, Jake Sullivan and Cheryl Mills, three aides to then-Secretary Clinton, who shielded communications from the government server by using Clinton's private domain.
"Ordinarily, when you get a FOIA request, you would not pick up the phone and start calling former employees and saying, 'Can you please bring back those documents?'" Fedeli said. "Here, we think the duty of preservation would include steps such as those."
While Sullivan and Mills have responded to requests from State that they submit those work-related emails, Abedin has yet to comply with the agency's orders.
The State Department is facing 35 separate lawsuits seeking records related to the Clinton email scandal, according to court filings.
"I am a little bit mystified that the government is not more forthcoming in just answering questions that will help this case proceed on a systematic basis, and on a basis that will allow everyone to get the answers that will eventually help resolve these cases, all 35 of them," Contreras said, noting the agency's own admission that it has taken no steps to consolidate its search efforts in overlapping cases.
The July 9 hearing focused on a FOIA request for documents related to the State Department's review of donations to the Clinton Foundation for potential conflicts of interest.
The Clinton Foundation had agreed to submit all foreign donations to the agency for review in a 2008 agreement with the White House amid concerns that such contributions could create conflicts of interest.
"Why is the State Department reluctant to make a search for the foundation conflict documents, which sounds like a relatively straightforward process?" Contreras asked the State Department attorneys.
State's legal team argued the search for relevant records was complex and would be hampered by strained agency resources.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, expressed optimism that the case could force State Department officials to look beyond the 55,000 printed pages of hand-selected emails Clinton turned over last year.
"This one court hearing shows that Hillary Clinton and her co-conspirators in the State Department will have to account for each and every email on Hillary Clinton's notorious email system," Fitton said.