WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton was directly asked by congressional investigators in a December 2012 letter whether she had used a private email account while serving as secretary of state, according to letters obtained by The New York Times.
But Mrs. Clinton did not reply to the letter. And when the State Department answered in March 2013, nearly two months after she left office, it ignored the question and provided no response.
The query was posed to Mrs. Clinton in a Dec. 13, 2012, letter from Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Mr. Issa was leading an investigation into how the Obama administration handled its officials’ use of personal email.
“Have you or any senior agency official ever used a personal email account to conduct official business?” Mr. Issa wrote to Mrs. Clinton. “If so, please identify the account used.”
Mr. Issa also asked Mrs. Clinton, “Does the agency require employees to certify on a periodic basis or at the end of their employment with the agency they have turned over any communications involving official business that they have sent or received using nonofficial accounts?”
Mr. Issa’s letter also sought written documentation of the department’s policies for the use of personal email for government business. Mrs. Clinton left the State Department on Feb. 1, 2013, seven weeks after the letter was sent to her.
When Mr. Issa received a response from the State Department on March 27, all he got was a description of the department’s email policies. According to the letter, any employee using a personal account “should make it clear that his or her personal email is not being used for official business.”
Mrs. Clinton acknowledged last month that she had exclusively used a personal email account, which was housed on a server that had been specially set up for her, when she was secretary of state. She said that she used the private account for convenience purposes because she did not want to carry more than one electronic device. By using the private account, many of her emails were shielded from inquiries by Congress, the news media and government watchdogs.
The revelation has set off the first major test of her early presidential campaign, as she seeks to assure the public and the news media that she was not seeking to hide her correspondence.
A congressional official provided The Times with a copy of Mr. Issa’s letter and the response from the State Department on the condition of anonymity because the official did not want to jeopardize his access to such information.
A spokesman for the State Department declined on Tuesday to answer questions about why it had not addressed Mr. Issa’s question about whether Mrs. Clinton or senior officials used personal email accounts.
“The department responds to thousands of congressional inquiries and requests for information each year,” said the spokesman, Alec Gerlach. “In its March 2013 letter, the department responded to the House Oversight Committee’s inquiry into the department’s ‘policies and practices regarding the use of personal email and other forms of electronic communications’ with a letter that described those policies in detail.”
An aide to Mrs. Clinton said in a statement Tuesday that “her usage was widely known to the over 100 department and U.S. government colleagues she emailed, as her address was visible on every email she sent.”
Mr. Issa had sent letters to the State Department and other executive agencies after it was discovered that some administration and Environment Protection Agency officials had used private accounts to conduct government business.
In the State Department’s letter back to Mr. Issa, Thomas B. Gibbons, the acting assistant secretary for legislative affairs, described the department’s records management policies and guidelines.
He said “employees may use personal email on personal time for matters not directly related to official business, and any employee using personal email ‘should make it clear that his or her personal email is not being used for official business.’ ”
The State Department offered training on its record management programs to its employees, he said.