State Department officials began allowing the Clinton Foundation to review emails the government planned to release to Congress and Freedom of Information Act requesters in January 2014, prompting a process that has delayed the publication of agency records for months, according to the group pursuing the records.
Many of the emails Clinton Foundation officials were permitted to review discussed the charity's work, as well as the hundreds of ethics reviews that former President Clinton faced as a result of his paid-speaking engagements around the world while his wife, Hillary Clinton, was secretary of state.
"On top of the obstruction that is in no small measure criminal in nature — with the hiding, removal and destruction of records by Mrs. Clinton — they are sending these records out to the foundation that are the very subject of these public controversies," said Tom Fitton.
Fitton is president of Judicial Watch, a nonprofit government watchdog that has been embroiled in a four-year court battle to obtain State Department records of Bill Clinton's speeches and interactions with foreign entities.
Judicial Watch said last week that the State Department had handed over to the Clinton Foundation 1,000 emails for review since January 2014. That information came from a small and heavily-redacted batch of State Department emails Judicial Watch obtained through one of its several FOIA lawsuits against the State Department.
Like several other records caches that have been dribbled out of the department in recent months, the emails showed Cheryl Mills — the former Clinton White House aide who left the family foundation to serve as Hillary Clinton's chief of staff at State before returning to the charity's board — was routinely involved in official matters concerning both the foundation and the former chief executive's paid speeches.
Mills was among several Clinton insiders who negotiated an ethics agreement between Hillary Clinton and President Obama before Clinton was appointed secretary of state. The agreement required both the Clintons and their foundation to undergo ethics reviews so State Department officials could determine whether a particular speech or event represented a real or apparent conflict of interest.
Bill Clinton faced more than 200 such reviews during his wife's tenure, the Washington Examiner reported in a joint investigation with Judicial Watch published in July 2014.
Mills negotiated for the Clintons alongside Doug Band, another former Clinton White House appointee who then became the president's aide. Band thereafter used the many connections he made through Clinton to rich and powerful individuals, corporations and governments to built a consulting firm with clients around the world.
Former Clinton White House chief of staff and Obama senior White House counsel John Podesta, who is now chairman of Hillary Clinton's campaign seeking the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, represented Obama in the negotiations on the ethics reviews.
The Podesta Group run by John's brother, Tony Podesta, lobbied the Clinton State Department in 2012 on behalf of Uranium One, a Canadian mining company that was the subject of a New York Times report questioning whether its State-sanctioned takeover by a Russian firm was influenced by the Russians' heavy donations to the Clinton Foundation.
Mills joined the Clinton Foundation's board of directors in 2004 and remained there while serving as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton's failed 2008 presidential campaign, departing only to become chief of staff to the former first lady when she became secretary of state.
While there, Mills was deeply involved in the process of vetting organizations, governments and companies that sought to pay Bill Clinton hefty sums for speeches, as well as internal reviews of Clinton Foundation activities.
Fitton raised concerns that a former and future foundation director was instrumental to orchestrating the legal footwork that allowed the Clintons to receive millions of dollars for speaking from foreign entities while Hillary Clinton served as the nation's chief diplomat.
"There's no way [Mills] should have been involved in this, given where she was and where she was going," Fitton said.
He noted that it's possible Mills, as a top Clinton Foundation official, is presently involved in reviewing the emails she herself wrote and was copied on during her time at the State Department, thanks to the agency's unusual arrangement with the charity.
A State Department official who requested anonymity was "not in a position to comment on ongoing litigation" but noted that FOIA "provides an exemption for privileged or confidential trade secrets."
"When the department receives a FOIA request for records which contain privileged or confidential commercial or financial information and determines that it may release them, we are obligated by law to consult with the entities or persons who first provided those records to the Department, and it is our practice to do so," the official said.
Fitton also questioned when and how much Patrick Kennedy, the department's top records management official, knew about Hillary Clinton's use of a private email and server to conduct government business while serving as secretary of state.
According to documents obtained by the watchdog nonprofit Cause of Action, Kennedy circulated an department-wide Oct. 17, 2014, memorandum urging agency employees to preserve their emails for government archives and to avoid using a private email address.
Kennedy cautioned that State Department staff "should be aware that the definition of a personal email is very narrow" and suggested most emails are subject to records laws.
The documents also reveal Mills' involvement with submitting pages of Hillary Clinton's emails to the State Department after the agency requested she do so in November of last year.
The reported 55,000 pages of emails were hand-delivered to State. In a letter accompanying the records, Mills claimed that Hillary Clinton only used a personal email account "at times."
Hillary Clinton later indicated she used a personal email address exclusively in order to avoid carrying multiple devices.
Jen Psaki, then the State Department spokesperson, said last month that the agency did not begin saving the emails of senior officials until February despite a 2009 policy requiring those records to be preserved.
"It's puzzling that a State Department spokesman told the public that senior officials' work emails were not archived until February of this year when Undersecretary Kennedy just provided Cause of Action documents showing that the Department has required emails to be preserved since 2009," said Daniel Epstein, president of Cause of Action.
"The State Department should have had possession of Secretary Clinton's email records when Mrs. Clinton left office," Epstein said. "The fact that they did not have possession of her emails raises still pressing questions."
In a related development Thursday, some key Clinton Foundation donors are having second thoughts about continuing their financial support of the $2 billion charity, according to Politico.
"A handful of deep-pocketed donors are reconsidering their gifts to the $2 billion Clinton Foundation amid mounting questions about how it’s spending their money and suggestions of influence peddling, according to donors and others familiar with the foundation’s fundraising," Politico's Ken Vogel reported.
"One major donor who contributed at least $500,000 to the foundation last year said a 2015 donation is less likely because of revelations about sloppy record-keeping and huge payments for travel and administrative costs," Vogel said.