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Ex-staffer: Benghazi committee pursuing 'partisan investigation' targeting Hillary Clinton

Story highlights

  • Major Bradley Podliska described the Benghazi committee "a partisan investigation"
  • Podliska worked for the House Select Committee on Benghazi before being fired
  • Committee chairman Trey Gowdy defend his panel's work Sunday saying its mission was 'providing the final, definitive accounting of the Benghazi terrorist attacks'

Washington (CNN)A former investigator with the House Select Committee on Benghazi is accusing the Republican-led panel of carrying out a politically motivated investigation targeting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instead of the thorough and objective fact-finding mission it was set up to pursue.

Maj. Bradley Podliska, an intelligence officer in the Air Force Reserve who describes himself as a conservative Republican, told CNN that the committee trained its sights almost exclusively on Clinton after the revelation last March that she used a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. That new focus flipped a broad-based probe of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, into what Podliska described as "a partisan investigation."
    Podliska, who was fired after nearly 10 months as an investigator for the Republican majority, is now preparing to file a lawsuit against the select committee next month, alleging that he lost his job in part because he resisted pressure to focus his investigative efforts solely on the State Department and Clinton's role surrounding the Benghazi attack. He also alleges he was fired because he took leave from the committee to fulfill his military service obligations, which would be an unlawful firing.
    "I knew that we needed to get to the truth to the victims' families. And the victims' families, they deserve the truth -- whether or not Hillary Clinton was involved, whether or not other individuals were involved," he told CNN in an exclusive TV interview that aired Sunday on "State of the Union." "The victims' families are not going to get the truth and that's the most unfortunate thing about this."
    Podliska told CNN that the committee, which has spent $4.6 million so far and is chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, pulled resources away from probes of other individuals and agencies to focus almost exclusively on Clinton and the State Department she helmed for four years. Clinton will testify before the committee for the first time Oct. 22, and the committee is set to release the findings of its investigation next year, in the heat of the presidential race.
    Podliska alleges that the committee's staff director told him he was fired for three reasons: using work email to send a social invitation to colleagues, assigning an "unauthorized project" to an intern, and allegedly putting classified information on an unclassified system. Podliska, an intelligence officer who was hired for his expertise with the intelligence community, strongly denies the latter. He also disputes the legitimacy of the other two reasons cited to him by the committee, in particular assigning any "unauthorized projects" to interns.

    Committee denies all allegations

    Gowdy flatly denied the claims in a statement Sunday, in which he repeatedly said Podliska never mentioned his concerns regarding the investigation. Gowdy again defended the mission of the committee as "the final, definitive accounting" of the Benghazi terrorist attacks and denied that its members were focusing on the former secretary of state.
    "Because I do not know him, and cannot recall ever speaking to him, I can say for certain he was never instructed by me to focus on Clinton, nor would he be a credible person to speak on my behalf," Gowdy said in the statement. "I am equally confident his supervisor, General (Retired Lt. Gen. Dana) Chipman, did not direct him to focus on Clinton."
    Gowdy also criticized CNN's reporting of Podliska's claims.
    "Had CNN contacted the Committee regarding its interview with this staffer before it rushed to air his sensationalistic and fabulist claims, it could have fully questioned him about his unsubstantiated claims. But that is the difference between journalism as practiced by CNN, and the fact-centric investigation being conducted by this Committee," Gowdy said in the statement.
    CNN refuted those allegations in a statement Sunday.
    "We categorically deny Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy's statement about CNN," a network spokesperson said. "We reached out to the committee for a response prior to publishing or broadcasting, which the committee provided. That response was included in our reporting. In addition, Chairman Gowdy was invited to discuss this on CNN and declined. Chairman Gowdy is wrong."
    A committee spokesperson "vigorously" denied Podliska's allegations about why he was fired and defended the objectivity of the panel's investigation.
    "We are confident that the facts and evidence give no support to the wild imagination fueling these and any future allegations, and the Committee will vigorously defend itself against such allegations. The Committee will not be blackmailed into a monetary settlement for a false allegation made by a properly terminated former employee," the committee spokesperson, who declined to be named, told CNN in a statement.
    The committee statement also accused Podliska of his own bias in his work on the committee, a claim the former staffer's lawyer firmly denied.
    The statement added that Podliska had never previously accused the committee of conducting a biased investigation targeting Clinton, although Podliska said he repeatedly made the case to his superiors that the committee's work should be more all-encompassing.
    Podliska said he decided to come forward because the committee's skewed focus is detracting from the objective of uncovering the truth surrounding the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. "What happened was wrong," Podliska said.
    "I'm scared. I'm nervous. I know that this is, you know, I'm going up against powerful people in Washington. But at the end of the day I need to live with myself," he said. "I told my wife, I will view myself as a coward if I don't do the right thing here."
    He insisted that his claim is not politically motivated, explaining that he has long been a conservative Republican -- "more on the libertarian side" -- and plans to vote for the GOP nominee in 2016.
    "I am going to vote for the Republican nominee in 2016. I do not support Hillary Clinton for president," he said.
    The accusation comes on the heels of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's controversial comments linking the Benghazi committee's efforts to a downward slide in Clinton's poll numbers -- an admission that McCarthy later walked back but still helped sink his bid to become House speaker.
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    "Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?" McCarthy said less than two weeks ago. "But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought."
    Democrats have seized on that gaffe as vindication that the committee was always a partisan witch-hunt aimed at sinking Clinton's presidential prospects.
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    After Clinton revelations, Podliska says committee shifted sights

    But Podliska, who served nearly 10 months on the committee before he was fired in late June, said the committee's probe started out as a fact-finding mission before it became an exercise in partisan politics. And unlike Democrats, he hopes that the committee won't be dismantled, but steered back toward its original mission.
    It was only in the weeks following the March 2 revelation about Clinton's email server in The New York Times that the committee's inquiry "changed to focus on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department, and deemphasize the other agencies that were involved in the Benghazi attacks and the aftermath of the attacks," according to a draft of the lawsuit Podliska's lawyers provided to CNN.
    When Podliska returned from nearly two weeks of Air Force service at the end of March, he said fellow committee staffers told him the committee's inquiry had become an "agency-centric investigation."
    Days after the Times story, the committee subpoenaed all of Clinton's emails related to Libya and soon called on her to turn over her email server for forensic examination. Since March, 24 of the 31 press releases the committee issued have focused on Clinton.
    "Hillary Clinton has a lot of explaining to do. We, however, did not need to shift resources to hyper focus on Hillary Clinton. We didn't need to de-emphasize and in some cases drop the investigation on different agencies, different organizations and different individuals," Podliska said. "There's wrongdoing here and I think it needs to stop."
    When pressed for details, Podliska said he was "not permitted to get into any more details." He is still bound by a nondisclosure agreement that prevents him from sharing details of the investigation's findings.
    The new focus will in fact prevent real wrongdoing from being uncovered, he believes, including the actions of other agencies and individuals whom he believes are "culpable and should be held accountable for what they were doing" -- including other Obama administration officials.
    The committee spokesman who provided CNN with official comment denied the accusations of bias and said Podliska was guilty of his own bias after allegedly crafting a PowerPoint presentation that the spokesman said amounted to a "hit piece" on members of the Obama administration -- including Secretary Clinton."
    One of Podliska's attorneys, Peter Romer-Friedman, said the committee was referring to a video an intern working with Podliska created "of her own volition" that was not included in the PowerPoint and which Podliska told the intern was "inappropriate." Romer-Friedman said the PowerPoint simply showed a timeline of the events following the Benghazi attacks and was in no way a "hit piece."
    Podliska's attorney also denied the PowerPoint was mentioned to Podliska as a reason for Podliska's firing.

    A discriminatory firing?

    Podliska also claims he was fired in part because he took extended absences from work to meet his military service obligations, which would be a violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994.
    The committee spokesperson also forcefully rejected that claim and pointed to the fact that the committee's top lawyer is former Judge Advocate General Dana Chipman.
    When he first explained in an email to the majority staff director Phil Kiko that he would need to serve 39 days of active duty in the Air Force, Kiko responded with a one-word, unpunctuated reply: "wow," he emailed.
    "I was horrified by it. I knew that he was upset. I knew that perhaps he thought that I wasn't a team player because I was leaving," Podliska said, adding that his fears became a reality when he returned from his first leave to serve out his obligation to the Air Force.
    Podliska said when he returned his superiors, including Kiko, largely ignored him and gave him little work to do.
    "I was fired for going on military service and I was fired for trying to conduct an objective, non-partisan, thorough investigation," Podliska said, insisting he had no axe to grind with the committee's staff.

    Podliska's politics

    And the self-labeled "conservative Republican" said he isn't politically motivated.
    During his work on the committee, Podliska said he worked closely with Rep. Jim Jordan, a conservative Republican who often bucks GOP establishment leaders. And long before joining the committee, Podliska was chairman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's College Republicans during his time there and later interned at the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog.
    That watchdog group was founded by Brent Bozell, an outspoken conservative who has slammed Clinton over Benghazi and her use of a personal email server and this year endorsed Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for president.
    His conservatism even seeped into a date when he participated in the Washington Post's "Date Lab" series, pulling out his phone to prove to his date that labor unions could in fact compel workers to join their union.
    Podliska previously worked on security and foreign policy issues at a federal defense agency from 1997 to 2014.
    His legal team is composed of a trio of attorneys who have previously represented service members and veterans in discrimination lawsuits and who claim varying political affiliations.
    One, Romer-Friedman, has worked for a number of labor unions, including serving as a legislative representative for the United Steelworkers of America, before serving as labor counsel to the late liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. He also donated $500 in both 2008 and 2012 to President Barack Obama's presidential campaigns. He won a $6 million settlement for Reserve members in a similar military discrimination case against United Airlines last year.
    Another, former Marine Thomas Jarrard, is a conservative Republican who served in a leadership post for the party in Spokane, Washington, and five years ago served as campaign manager to a Republican running for the Washington state legislature. He also attended a fundraiser for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking woman in House GOP leadership.
    Joseph Napiltonia, a former Navy SEAL and the third lawyer on the case, describes himself as "apolitical" and a "middle of the road guy" who has donated to Republicans and Democrats running for local office.
    Podliska had also initially hired a lawyer to look into his case who the Benghazi committee spokesman said "withdrew from representing him."
    Romer-Friedman said Podliska hired an initial lawyer to see if he had a legitimate claim but soon dropped that lawyer to hire his current attorneys, who are experts in military discrimination cases. Romer-Friedman could not immediately identify the first lawyer.
    Podliska plans to file the lawsuit next month after a 30-day mediation phase required under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act passes. Podliska said he could not comment on the mediation process.
    Podliska's planned lawsuit will ask the court to order the committee to reinstate him as an investigator on the committee and to reimburse him for wages and benefits lost as a result of his firing. His annual salary on the committee was $130,000, according to public records.
    Podliska also leveled accusations about the committee's work environment, telling CNN that "there was very little work actually being done."
    He said half the staff was "surfing the Web all day long" and said "there was plenty of drinking during the work day."
    And while he was reprimanded for sharing an invitation to an event with his colleagues via work email, he said a group of staffers had set up a "gun buying club" for "chrome-plated, monogrammed Tiffany-style Glock nine millimeters" and that staffers would spend "hours at a time" designing the guns.
    The committee spokesperson declined to address these allegations.
    "It was a classic case -- and this is me, as a conservative -- of taxpayer waste, fraud and abuse," he said. "It should not have occurred."