[WASHINGTON] Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail system while she was secretary of state violated State Department rules, the agency's inspector general concluded in a report that will hand Republicans an additional line of attack as the general election campaign gets underway.
The audit by the State Department's independent investigator found no evidence that she requested guidance or approval to conduct official business via personal e-mail on a private server - and concluded the agency likely wouldn't have granted the request.
The inspector general also faulted the State Department's handling of electronic records and communications beyond Mrs Clinton's tenure.
"Longstanding, systemic weaknesses related to electronic records and communications have existed within the office of the secretary that go well beyond the tenure of any one secretary of state," the report, which was delivered to Congress Wednesday, said.
Mrs Clinton declined to speak with investigators, according to the report, as did at least three key aides: former Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills, former Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, who is now a top aide on the campaign, and former Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin, who now serves as the campaign vice chairwoman.
The inspector general's report adds to Mrs Clinton's political woes as she's trying to wrap up the Democratic presidential nomination and campaign against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who's used the e-mail controversy as part of his criticism of her fitness for the White House. Mrs Clinton faces a separate FBI investigation and a conservative watchdog group has sued for access to her messages.
While her challenger for the Democratic nomination, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, has largely steered clear of the issue, Republicans have jumped on the controversy.
Before he withdrew from the race for the nomination, Florida senator Marco Rubio said Mrs Clinton's first act as president would be to "pardon herself" over the e-mails, while Mr Trump has referred to her as "Crooked Hillary".
Mrs Clinton used private e-mail to send or receive about 60,000 messages from 2009 to 2013. She and her aides said about half were work-related and turned over to the State Department. They have said the rest, which they deemed personal, were destroyed.
Mrs Clinton added that she used the system as a matter of convenience, but said that in hindsight she should have used a government system.
Full report from the inspector general, click here Following a review, State Department officials said more than 2,000 of the messages Mrs Clinton shared contained classified information, with top-secret information appearing in 22. However, no material was labeled as classified when the e-mails were sent or received. Mrs Clinton and her aides say that shows she didn't do anything wrong.
Still, Mrs Clinton herself expressed some concerns about her personal e-mails being exposed. In November 2010, she and Ms Abedin discussed via e-mail whether Mrs Clinton should send messages via the State Department system or sharing her private e-mail address.
"Let's get separate address or device but I don't want any risk of the personal being accessible," Mrs Clinton wrote in a response quoted in the report.
The inspector general said using a private e-mail system "is not an appropriate method of preserving any such emails that would constitute a Federal record."
"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," the report said.
Mrs Clinton was not the first secretary of state to rely on private e-mail while serving as the nation's top diplomat. Colin Powell, who served under president George W Bush, has said he used private e-mail as part of an effort to upgrade State Department communications and that none of his records were preserved.
Mrs Clinton's use, though, included a private server, which many experts say may have been more difficult to protect than commercial services available from companies like Google.
The inspector general also said the State Department's guidance on e-mail use "was considerably more detailed and more sophisticated" by the time Mrs Clinton took office.
The inspector general interviewed current Secretary of State John Kerry, Mr Powell and former secretaries Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice for the report. Mr Kerry told the auditor that he has used personal e-mail, but infrequently, and that he either copies or forwards such e-mails to his State Department account.