Clinton tapped D.C. lawyer to help respond to Benghazi questions

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton leaves Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, at the conclusion of a campaign stop at the Westfair Amphitheater in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton leaves Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, at the conclusion of a campaign stop at the Westfair Amphitheater in Council Bluffs, Iowa. AP

Hillary Clinton tapped a former State Department employee to help respond to various inquires from Capitol Hill after the 2012 fatal attacks in Benghazi, Libya, at the same he was being paid by his law firm.

Richard Verma was designated a “special government employee,” allowing him to work at the department as well as at Steptoe & Johnson law firm, according to an email he wrote that was obtained by Citizens United, a conservative group that has filed lawsuits to access records from the State Department.

The arrangement has prompted additional questions about the way the federal program at the State Department was used while Clinton served as secretary of state.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has long been concerned about the use of the program, which was supposed to be designed to allow the government to bring aboard outside talent to fill voids in its expertise.

“It’s not clear that responding to congressional inquiries is how the special employee designation was meant to be used,” Grassley said Thursday. “It was designed to get special expertise that the government can’t get in-house. Agencies already have congressional affairs staff who are employed to help respond to congressional inquiries. The State Department has stretched the definition in several cases.”

A similar arrangement involving another of Clinton’s closest confidants, Huma Abedin, led the State Department inspector general to launch a review into the department’s use of the designation and, apparently, whether it was abused in the hiring of Abedin, who was working at the State Department and Teneo, a company that provides political intelligence to clients.

In August, Grassley asked the FBI whether the inspector general’s office had notified the bureau of any inquiry into Abedin that had evolved into “a full-fledged criminal investigation.” The FBI referred Grassley to the inspector general.

The inspector general’s office declined to comment Thursday on the status of its inquiry.

“The special government employee designation is not limited to specific types of position descriptions,” State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach said.

Clinton campaign officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Grassley has been asking whether the State Department’s “excessive use” of the program undermines government ethical standards, because conflicts of interest can arise when a government employee is simultaneously working for a private contractor.

Revelations of private email use and multiple jobs held at the same time by one individual raised more questions. Now, more details are coming in, and they warrant more questions. The bottom line is still whether the taxpayers are well-served by agency practices and spending. No one will know for sure until the State Department is more transparent about how it operates.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley

The inspector general told him in a letter that the office would examine whether the program “conforms to applicable legal and policy requirements” and safeguards against any possible conflicts of interest. The employees may or may not be paid.

Clinton, now the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic nomination for president, has been under fire for actions at the State Department, including exclusively using a personal email account for government work, as well as her response to the attacks in Benghazi that led to four deaths, including the ambassador.

Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, asked Verma, now U.S. ambassador to India, to help respond to various congressional requests related to Libya because of his background working on Capitol Hill, according to the Verma email of Oct. 12, 2012, in which he outlined his job arrangement.

“Cheryl thought my prior experience handling investigations and my work on the Hill would be useful in advising the team as they process requests,” he wrote to two State Department officials.

Verma, a former assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, led the State Department’s efforts on Capitol Hill and served as a senior member of Clinton’s team.

His unpaid advisory role began Oct. 1, 2012. Verma said he would spend two to three hours a day discussing issues, primarily with the State Department legislative team. The designation is given on an annual basis, according to the department, but Verma said he had expected to work for 60 days.

In his email, Verma indicated he was issued a State Department identification, email account and Blackberry so he could keep his responsibilities apart from his full-time job. He had been working on President Obama’s re-election campaign but stopped when he went back to the State Department.

As we discussed, any political activities that I undertake must be done on my personal time, and not involve government resources. I obviously have followed that guidance strictly.

Richard Verma in a letter to the State Department

Citizens United began filing Freedom of Information Act requests at the State Department last year in hopes of getting enough information to produce a documentary about Clinton. They have sued the State Department for unresponsive requests multiple times.

Obama nominated Verma, who also had worked at Albright Stonebridge Group and the Center for American Progress, to be ambassador in September 2014, more than a year after Clinton had left the State Department. He had also worked as a senior national security adviser, counsel and foreign policy adviser to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

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