The State Department Asked Me To Return Documents That Were Mailed To Me

Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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If the State Department had tried this hard to obtain the work-related emails of Hillary Clinton and her top aides before they left office, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.

After The Daily Caller published separation statements for two of Clinton’s aides, Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills, last Friday, two officials with the State Department reached out to this reporter requesting that the documents and any copies made of them be returned.

State’s concern was that the two documents contained sensitive personal information. And they did, sort of: they disclosed Abedin’s and Mills’ birth dates.

In order to retrieve and secure that information, Margaret Grafeld, the deputy assistant secretary for global information services at the State Department, sent an email late Friday seeking return of the records, known as OF-109s. And John Hackett, the director of the office of information programs and services, called Wednesday to inquire about their safe return.

While neither Grafeld nor Hackett threatened consequences for declining to return the papers, their urgency raises the question: did the State Department try this hard to retrieve agency records that were in Clinton’s, Abedin’s and Mills’ possession for months and years after they left office in February 2013?

The answer appears to be: probably not.

As TheDC reported last week, only Abedin signed the OF-109 when she left her job at State. Neither Mills nor Clinton signed the form. And State is still not sure if another Clinton aide, Philippe Reines, signed the document. Reines’ attorney referred TheDC back to the State Department on the matter.

By signing the OF-109, Abedin agreed that she had turned over all of her work-related product to the State Department. Failure to do so could result in criminal charges, the signed document reads. But in fact, Abedin did not turn over all of her work-related records for more than two years after leaving office. She returned a large batch of emails from a non-government email account to the State Department in September. (RELATED: Exclusive: Top Hillary Aide Signed, Failed To Comply With State Dept ‘Separation Agreement’)

Though this reporter had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the OF-109s and would have received the documents at some point — TheDC is also being represented by Cause of Action in a lawsuit — the State Department sent them earlier than it had planned.

After receiving the forms in the mail on Thursday, TheDC contacted the State Department’s press office for comment on Abedin’s apparent breach of the agreement.

A spokesman referred this reporter to the office of the State Department that had sent the documents. A phone call to that department proved fruitless. A staffer referred TheDC to a third State Department employee.

No mention was made in any of those conversations that the documents were accidentally sent, though this reporter suspected that was the case.

The press official asserted that the agency would normally redact sensitive personal information, such as Social Security numbers and birth dates. And while birth dates printed on the documents, social security numbers were not. As a courtesy, TheDC agreed to redact that information before publishing the paperwork online.

The official also asked that the name and signature of the officer who conducted Abedin’s exit interview be redacted. TheDC agreed to do that as well. As a courtesy.

Shortly after that conversation, the official called back with another request. The Department of Justice wanted to ensure that the documents were redacted in a way such that boxes covering the information could not be removed electronically. So the official suggested redacting the documents on a computer, printing them out and then scanning them. TheDC agreed to do this too. As a courtesy.

But that appears not to have satisfied the agency. Grafeld and Hackett wanted the documents back in their possession pronto.

In her email on Friday, Grafeld stated that the State Department would send a prepaid envelope to return the documents. But she made several inaccurate statements about what others at State had told this reporter. She claimed that “our staff informed you that documents you received … were mistakenly mailed to you without proper processing, as they include information that is exempt from disclosure, potentially including Social Security numbers.”

State Department staffers never claimed that the documents were mistakenly sent. Nor do the forms include fields for Social Security numbers. Grafeld may have been thinking that nondisclosure forms called SF-312s were included in the batch of records. But those were released earlier this month and were not in the large manila envelope that wound up in this reporter’s mail box.

In another apparent State Department error, the agency published all of the forms on its website but paired pages of OF-109s with SF-312s.

“The Department asked that you not distribute or disseminate these documents or copies of these documents,” Grafeld asserted in her email.

But that is inaccurate as well. Nobody from State suggested that the documents should not be published. Instead, State’s press office provided instruction on how to properly redact the documents for publication.

Then, on Wednesday, Hackett personally phoned to follow up on Grafeld’s email to ensure that the OF-109s were being returned.

The whole situation is perplexing.

Compare how the State Department scurried to retrieve two pieces of paper containing unredacted birth dates of former officials — information that is readily available online — to how the agency has willfully ignored Clinton and company flouting federal regulations regarding government records.

By using non-governmental email accounts, Clinton, Abedin and Mills avoided having the federal records in their custody released in response to FOIA requests filed while they were in office. The State Department denied the requests, however, citing no available documents.

The off-the-books email accounts also stymied congressional investigations.

Clinton left the agency in Feb. 1, 2013 but did not turn over her emails until Dec. 5, 2014. Mills and Abedin held onto theirs for more than two years. Both left the State Department in February 2013, but Mills turned over her emails in July; Abedin in September.

It is unclear if anyone at the State Department requested the trio to return what rightfully belonged to the agency. It could be that Grafeld, Hackett or another official regularly phoned and emailed them seeking a return of the documents. But that is unlikely to have been the case.

Instead, State’s first attempt at retrieving the work-product did not occur until last summer, according to numerous reports. That’s when State Department attorneys working on a production of records for the House Select Committee on Benghazi noticed some emails Clinton sent from a personal email address.

In an effort to downplay the seriousness of her exclusive use of an unprecedented email setup, Clinton has claimed that dozens of State Department officials were aware of her use of a personal email account. And as Clinton’s released emails show, two of the officials who were most well-positioned to force her to turn over the records in a timely manner were well aware of her use of the personal account. (RELATED: Hillary Emailed With John Kerry And Another State Department Official At Center Of Scandal)

Patrick Kennedy, the Under Secretary for Management at State, exchanged emails with Clinton. Kennedy is the official who sent requests to Clinton, Mills, Abedin and other aides asking them to turn over their records in order to remain in compliance with the Federal Records Act. While the State Department began discussing Clinton’s emails with her lawyers last summer, State did not formally request them until late October. She did not turn over the records until December.

Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, also corresponded with Clinton through her email address when he was in the Senate. Yet Kerry appears to have done nothing to retrieve Clinton’s emails before the scandal erupted onto the national stage. He and other State Department officials have also resisted calls to ensure that Clinton returned all of her work-related emails by searching her home-brew email server.

Meanwhile, this reporter returned Abedin’s and Mills’ OF-109s to Foggy Bottom on Friday.

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