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Clinton staffer given immunity in e-mail inquiry: sign of charges to come?

Whether the query into Mrs. Clinton's use of a private e-mail server amounts to a criminal investigation is still unclear, but in similar cases involving improper transmission of classified information, prosecution has been rare.

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Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton checks her Blackberry from a desk inside a C-17 military plane upon her departure from Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, bound for Tripoli, Libya, Oct. 18, 2011. Mrs. Clinton’s work-related e-mails from her private account are now public, a ledger longer than 52,000 pages detailing her tenure as America’s top diplomat while failing to resolve questions about how she and her closest aides handled classified information.

Kevin Lamarque/AP/File

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The Justice Department has given immunity to a former State Department staffer who worked on Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server, which she used during her work as secretary of State, a senior law enforcement official told The Washington Post.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation secured the cooperation of Bryan Pagliano, who worked on Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign before setting up the server in her New York home in 2009, the official told the Post.

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The move comes as part of a "criminal investigation" into possible mishandling of classified information, the paper reports. That’s a label Clinton and her staff have attempted to avoid as they navigate the political minefield and try to reassure voters that the likely frontrunner to become the Democratic nominee for president isn’t in legal jeopardy.

So far, there appears to be no indication the prosecutors have convened a grand jury in the e-mail investigation to issue subpoenas for testimony or documents, a move that would require the participation of a US attorney’s office.

“There was wrongdoing,” a former senior law enforcement official told the Post. “But was it criminal wrongdoing?”

That is a crucial distinction, which also became a factor in the case of David Petraeus, the former CIA director, who pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor count of unlawful removal and retention of classified materials.

As part of a plea deal, the retired four-star Army general admitted that he loaned his biographer, Paula Broadwell, with whom he was also having an affair, eight binders of highly classified information. He said he kept the files in an unlocked desk drawer at home, instead of a secure facility required for handling classified material, the Associated Press reported in January.

Unlike Clinton, who has said she didn’t send or receive anything that was classified at the time – a claim which is now being investigated – Mr. Petraeus told Ms. Broadwell that the binders had “code-word stuff in there,” in a recording revealed by prosecutors.

He initially denied having given her classified information when questioned by the FBI, avoiding being charged with making a false statement by pleading guilty, an outcome that drew questions about a double standard considering Petraeus's high-ranking.

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Stephen Vladeck, an American University law professor and expert in national security law, told the AP in January that it was was unlikely that Clinton would be charged under any existing statute considering what’s now known about the e-mail server.

In cases that have led to charges, the Justice Department has often relied on a lower-level charge that relies on a statute barring the unlawful removal and retention of classified documents. That charge, which carries a fine and maximum one-year prison sentence, is reserved for people who have “really, really screwed up,” Professor Vladeck told the AP.

But for Clinton, the e-mail controversy has become a political football as she moves toward becoming the likely Democratic nominee.

Republicans have called for her prosecution, with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus describing the server as a “terrible error in judgment,” and questioning Clinton’s “arrogant and dishonest claims,” about the server, saying they made her unfit to be president in a statement.

But in a debate in October, Clinton's chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sander of Vermont, blasted the focus on the controversy in favor of other issues, saying, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.