WASHINGTON - Three technology experts who helped manage the controversial private email accounts of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton asserted their constitutional rights against self-incrimination Tuesday and balked at answering questions from a congressional investigative panel.
In a politically charged hearing in the midst of the former secretary of state's campaign for the White House, Republicans on the House Oversight Committee attempted to undercut the conclusion reached by U.S. investigators that Clinton was "extremely careless" in her handling of classified national security information on her unsecured email server, but that no criminal charges were warranted.
Clinton's Republican challenger, real estate mogul Donald Trump, has often attacked Clinton's handling of the classified material and political surveys show many voters question her honesty in answering questions about the emails.
One of the witnesses called by the panel, Bryan Pagliano, a former State Department computer specialist, skipped the hearing even though he had been subpoenaed. He had previously spoken to the Federal Bureau of Investigation under a grant of immunity to talk about how Clinton used a private, unsecured email server based in her New York home while she was the country's top diplomat from 2009 to 2013 rather than a more secure government server.
Pagliano drew the ire of the committee chairman, Representative Jason Chaffetz, who said Pagliano was "thumbing his nose at Congress" for not showing up and vowed there would be consequences for his absence. "We're not letting go of this," he said.
‘Abusing taxpayer dollars’
Two other technology officials, Bill Thornton and Paul Combetta, of the Platte River Networks company that managed Clinton's email server after she left office, sat at a witness table but then refused to answer several Chaffetz questions, invoking their constitutional right against self-incrimination. When Chaffetz realized he was not going to get any answers, he excused them from the hearing.
Chaffetz called Clinton's use of the private email server, her destruction of more than 30,000 emails she considered to be private and her handling of classified, national security material in the emails "an absolute mess...one of the biggest breaches of security in the history of the State Department."
But the top Democrat on the panel, Representative Elijah Cummings, attacked Republicans for even holding the hearing.
"I believe this committee is abusing taxpayer dollars and the authority of Congress in an astonishing onslaught of political attacks to damage secretary Clinton's campaign for president," Cummings said.
Cummings noted that FBI Director James Comey concluded that it was "not a cliffhanger" in deciding not to charge Clinton with a criminal offense.
One witness, Justin Cooper, a one-time technology aide to Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, answered the committee's questions.
Cooper said that as Hillary Clinton switched from one email device to another, all of the emails and information contained on her old computer were copied onto the new one, rejecting Republican claims that Clinton set out to hide material.
On two occasions, after information from old mobile devices was transferred, Cooper said he helped smash them with a hammer. He said he considered that to be a "good practice," even as some Republican lawmakers expressed their skepticism.