At the same time then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was storing emails on a personal server in violation of the rules, her department twice received a "prestigious" award for its record-keeping practices -- an honor that, in retrospect, has watchdogs scratching their heads. 

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) gave the so-called Archivist Award to the State Department in 2010 and again in September 2012, toward the end of Clinton's tenure. 

During the 2012 ceremony, NARA Chief Records Officer Paul Wester described the honor, also bestowed upon the Treasury Department, as “prestigious.” 

How did State merit such recognition?

According to NARA spokesman John Valceanu, the award was “specifically focused” on its work related to the management of inactive paper records stored in the State Department records center.

But at the time both awards were given, Clinton was skirting records rules with her email practices, according to a recent and highly critical inspector general report. 

“It is ironic, to say the least, that the National Archives and Records Administration presented awards to the State Department for their record-keeping practices while Secretary Clinton was violating the law by using a private email server,” said Alfred J. Lechner, Jr., president of Cause of Action Institute, a public interest law firm suing over department record-keeping. 

At the beginning of Clinton's tenure, the department started using State Messaging and Archive Retrieval Toolset (SMART), a system that let employees preserve emails through their department accounts without having to print and file them the old-fashioned way for record-keeping purposes.

Clinton chose not to use it. While the Democratic presidential candidate claimed all along that her emails were being captured on the government accounts with which she corresponded, the IG report said that was not an “appropriate method of preserving any such emails that would constitute a Federal record.”

Further, the IG indicated Clinton potentially violated federal law when she left State without handing over her emails.

“At a minimum, Secretary Clinton should have surrendered all emails dealing with Department business before leaving government service and, because she did not do so, she did not comply with the Department’s policies that were implemented in accordance with the Federal Records Act,” said the IG report.

The report also cited officials affirming that her private email set-up would not have been approved had she sought permission. 

At the time, Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said the report still showed “how consistent her email practices were with those of other Secretaries and senior officials,” while urging steps to improve record-keeping. Though no official had a known set-up quite like Clinton's, the IG report did cite former Secretary of State Colin Powell as well for not turning over records when he left. 

Lechner, a former judge, has joined with conservative watchdog Judicial Watch to file a lawsuit against U.S. Archivist David S. Ferriero and Secretary of State John Kerry for the alleged failure to carry out statutory obligations to ensure records were preserved.

They filed a joint brief on Monday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia arguing that some email records from Clinton’s private server have yet to be recovered by the department in accordance with the Federal Records Act (FRA).

NARA’s Valceanu says they were in the dark about Clinton’s email practices at the time of the award. 

“At that time, NARA was not aware of the use of non-governmental email accounts by Secretaries of State, which we only found out about in March 2015, when the New York Times article was published,” he said in a statement to FoxNews.com.

NARA was not completely unaware of potential record-keeping problems, however, according to an email released by the Archives’ chief counsel. 

In a Dec. 11, 2012 email to colleagues, Wester asked for a meeting to talk about concerns that an effort was afoot to take her records to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark.

“Tom heard (or thought he heard) from the Clinton Library Director that there are or may be plans for taking her records from State to Little Rock,” Wester wrote. “Tom then got to asking questions about what we are doing to make sure everyone leaving the Administration does not leave with Federal records. I told him we are aware of the issue and are working on it.”