WASHINGTON – The Republican chairman of the House committee investigating Hillary Clinton's email practices asked a federal prosecutor Tuesday to determine whether she and others working with her played a role in the deletion of thousands of her emails by a Colorado technology firm overseeing her private computer server in 2015.
The written request by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and obtained by The Associated Press, is based on recent revelations from the FBI, which decided not to press for criminal charges after its own yearlong investigation.
Clinton and her longtime aide and lawyer, Cheryl Mills, told FBI investigators during questioning that they had no knowledge of the technology company's deletions. Those occurred separately from the email deletions overseen by the former secretary of state's legal team last year before she turned over 33,000 work-related messages to the State Department. The FBI's recently released summaries of its investigation did not offer any evidence contradicting their statements.
In a separate letter also obtained by the AP, Chaffetz — the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman — warned the Denver-based tech firm, Platte River Networks, that one of its engineers who deleted Clinton's electronic files last year could face federal charges of obstructing evidence for erasing the material. That's because the congressional inquiry into the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, had issued a formal order to preserve such records.
The moves by the GOP led-House committee amount to new political complications for Clinton's presidential campaign, which was spared a legal ordeal in July when FBI Director James Comey upbraided Clinton for careless email practices but declined to seek criminal charges after the bureau's investigation.
But the sparse evidence laid out in Chaffetz' letters — highlighting a March 2015 phone discussion between the tech firm and Clinton lawyers that FBI agents were unable to detail — also shows the uphill climb the committee faces in turning up any significant new information beyond what the FBI already learned in its inquiry.
The new requests follow a similar attempt last month by Republican-led committees in the House and Senate to prod new information from the Denver firm as the presidential race between Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump enters its critical final months. Despite Comey's insistence that he made the right call in declining to ask for criminal charges in Clinton's handling of her private emails, Trump and GOP allies have urged the appointment of an independent prosecutor — an unlikely prospect so late in the election.
"The bottom line is these documents were destroyed and they were records under subpoena," Chaffetz told the AP in a brief interview. Chaffetz said "Secretary Clinton has fought this every step of the way. The election should not slow down this probe."
Clinton's campaign was not immediately available to respond to requests for comment. The Denver-based firm and its lawyer were similarly not immediately available for their reactions.
Chaffetz's letter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Channing Phillips, comes nearly two months after the House committee similarly asked the same prosecutor to determine whether Clinton committed perjury and made false statements in testimony to congressional committees. The new referral, which aims to again involve the FBI, asked the Justice Department to "investigate and determine whether Secretary Clinton or her employees and contractors violated statutes that prohibit destruction of records, obstruction of congressional inquiries and concealment or cover up of evidence material to a congressional investigation."
In his letter to Platte River Networks, the firm used by Clinton to manage her private server after she left the State Department, Chaffetz said that FBI revelations about the deleted data "raises questions to whether the PRN engineer violated federal statutes that prohibit destruction of evidence and obstruction of a congressional investigation." Chaffetz demanded more information about the 2015 deletion and the firm's contacts with Clinton's lawyers.
Chaffetz also questioned in the letter whether the mass email deletions by the unidentified Platte River engineer, which came at about the same time as a conference call with Clinton's legal team, might have been "instructed" by Clinton through her lawyers.
The FBI said Mills had instructed the Platte River engineer in December 2014 to delete all emails from the server older than 60 days old. But the engineer apparently forgot to delete the files and didn't realize his mistake until March 2015, the FBI said. That was three weeks after Clinton's email revelation and the House Benghazi committee's order that Clinton and her tech consultants retain all of her email records.
According to the FBI files, the engineer told agents that "he believed he had an 'oh (expletive)' moment," and deleted the archived emails sometime during the last week of March 2015. The FBI report said the engineer used a program called BleachBit to delete the files in ways thought to make them unrecoverable.
The report said that the engineer "was aware of the existence of the (Benghazi committee) preservation request and the fact that it meant he should not disturb Clinton's email data on the PRN server."
The FBI said Platte River personnel had a conference call with Mills and David Kendall, Clinton's longtime personal lawyer, in late March 2015. FBI agents found a Platte River "work ticket" for such a call on March 31, but they reported that the company's attorney advised the unnamed engineer "not to comment on the conversation with Kendall based on the assertion of attorney-client privilege." Chaffetz said he will seek to examine the work ticket and questioned how the engineer could refuse to talk to the FBI agents about the conference call if the only lawyers involved were Clinton's.
Kendall and Cheryl Mills' attorney were not immediately available to discuss Chaffetz's letters.