Updated 4:30 p.m. | Former staffer Bradley F. Podliska filed a lawsuit on Monday against the House Select Committee on Benghazi for unlawful termination and against its chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., for defamation.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, argues that Podliska was unlawfully fired by the committee in June 2015 following months of hostility against him because he took leave from his job to fulfill his obligations as an intelligence officer in the Air Force Reserve. It asks that Podliska be reinstated “into a position at the level of seniority, status, and pay that he would have enjoyed had the Benghazi Committee neither discriminated nor retaliated against him” and that he be compensated for lost pay and benefits in addition to damages. Podliska is requesting a jury trial to examine his claims of unlawful termination and defamation. The lawsuit claims the committee violated his rights under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, which prohibits discrimination against someone based on their military service, and the Congressional Accountability Act.
“As soon as Podliska announced that he intended to file a civil suit as authorized by the CAA and USERRA, Chairman Gowdy and his Benghazi Committee staffers responded by intentionally defaming Podliska, making numerous false allegations to multiple national news outlets,” the lawsuit says. “Chairman Gowdy, personally and through his agents, tied these defamatory statements to Podliska’s firing to damage Podliska’s reputation and his ability to seek or secure employment in his chosen field.”
Benghazi panel spokesman Jamal Ware said in a statement to CQ Roll Call that the committee strongly disagrees with Podliska’s claims, calling them “meritless” and saying they “improperly strike at the heart of the committee’s legislative functions.” The committee did not discriminate or retaliate against Podliska based on his military status or any other unlawful factor, he added.
“We look forward to responding to the allegations in due course and in the appropriate forum,” Ware said. “And we are confident that once all the facts are known — should this case be permitted to proceed — we will be fully exonerated.”
Podliska told CNN in October that he was fired “for trying to conduct an objective, nonpartisan, thorough investigation” after the committee decided to focus its probes on former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He stated then his intention to sue the committee for dismissing him in part due to the time commitment of his Air Force Reserve work.
Gowdy responded at the time in a written statement saying Podliska’s leave for his reserve duties was approved and that one of the reasons Podliska was fired was for “deficient performance.” The South Carolina Republican said Podliska had never mentioned Clinton as a cause for his termination, including during a September mediation on the matter.
The lawsuit outlines several incidents in which Podliska was allegedly treated unfairly for both his military leave and his efforts to look into agencies besides the State Department that were involved in the response to the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens.
When Podliska sent an email to Benghazi Committee Staff Director Phil Kiko informing him that he would need to take leave March 14-27 to fulfill his obligations as a reservist, Kiko responded, “wow,” according to the lawsuit.
Podliska alleges that after he returned from leave, Kiko treated him differently. “Kiko no longer acted cordially towards Plaintiff and offered him little, if any, work opportunities,” the lawsuit states.
Around the same time, the committee’s investigation became more focused on the State Department and Clinton and de-emphasized the involvement of other agencies, according to the lawsuit.
“It was clear to Plaintiff that he was being singled out because of his military service and because he was unwilling to go along with the hyper-focus on the State Department and Secretary Clinton based upon the fact that his comprehensive, thorough, and objective investigation was pointing at other agencies and individuals and not solely the State Department and Secretary Clinton,” the lawsuit says.
Podliska took leave again from May 4-27 for an Air Force Reserve assignment in Germany. While he was away, Dana Chipman, the committee’s chief counsel, was overheard questioning whether Podliska actually needed to go to Germany.
When Podliska returned from the may leave, Kiko and deputy staff director Christopher Donesa refused to give him any work and would not talk to him, according to lawsuit.
Gowdy said in his October statement that Podliska mishandled classified information, which the lawsuit calls “the most significant false and defamatory statement that the Benghazi Committee and Gowdy repeated in numerous national news outlets.”
The committee’s security manager John McIntyre Tolar accused Podliska and three other majority staff members on the panel of allegedly putting classified material onto an unclassified system, but those allegations were false, the lawsuit argues.
Podliska had used publicly available Internet sources to write the document that Tolar said contained classified information, according to the lawsuit. “Later, Tolar acknowledged that the information in the document at issue was not classified,” the lawsuit says, noting that neither Tolar nor the other three staffers accused of mishandling classified information were ever reprimanded or subject to adverse employment action.
The lawsuit says that Kiko on June 26 asked Podliska to resign and threatened to terminate him if he didn’t comply. Podliska hired an attorney, and was ultimately terminated on June 29.