The legal battle between the House Select Committee on Benghazi and its former investigator, Brad Podliska, escalated Monday afternoon, when Podliska’s lawyers alleged that Chairman Trey Gowdy violated government confidentiality rules and federal law in responding to allegations made by Podliska.
“Both Representative Gowdy and the committee have clearly violated terms of the confidentiality agreement and the Congressional Accountability Act,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, one of Podliska’s attorneys, to MSNBC on Monday afternoon.
WATCH: New Benghazi bombshell
The lawyers allege that Gowdy and the committee improperly released confidential information regarding an employment dispute with Podliska, in an effort to discredit him.
“The ludicrousness of a former employee who has spread himself across the news media over the weekend complaining about confidentiality ought to be obvious,” a Benghazi Committee spokesperson told NBC News’ Luke Russert on Monday. “The Committee will vigorously defend itself against these and any other false claims and has nothing further to add at this time.”
The skirmish began over the weekend when Podliska alleged publicly that the committee improperly targeted Hillary Clinton in an effort to damage her politically. A draft of a lawsuit to be filed by Podliska claimed he was fired in part because he refused to go along with the anti-Clinton effort, and also in retaliation for him leaving the committee on Reserve Air Force duties.
Gowdy has categorically denied Podliska’s allegations that he was fired for refusing to go after Clinton. Gowdy has said Podliska was actually terminated for his own errors on the job, including the mishandling of classified information.
At issue in the new claims made Monday by Podliska’s lawyers are critical comments leveled by Gowdy about Podliska over the weekend, in response to the ex-staffer’s charge that the committee improperly targeted Clinton. Gowdy, the Benghazi committee chairman, told NBC News’ Kristin Welker that Podliska was a “lousy employee” who mishandled classified information, and that his criticism of the committee’s focus on Hillary Clinton only arose when he “was losing in mediation on his reservist claim.” That referred to Podliska’s claim that the committee retaliated against him for leaving the country to serve in the Air Force Reserves.
Podliska’s lawyers also point to stories in Politico and The Washington Post as examples of information that they say must have come from the committee. Politico published internal committee emails Podliska sent to colleagues while employed there.
“The only way, in our view, that those docs and the information Gowdy shared could be made public is through the majority staff of the committee or Chairman Gowdy,” they told MSNBC.
They say they are issuing a formal cease-and-desist letter to Gowdy, demanding he stop making statements or releasing information that may violate confidentiality rules for disputes with former congressional staff. They cite a federal law stating that counseling for employee disputes must remain “strictly confidential.”
The letter, first obtained by MSNBC, charges that Gowdy has been “describing private settlement discussions between the parties that must be treated as confidential under the Congressional Accountability Act, and surely Chairman Gowdy, as a lawyer, knows that he is not permitted to publicly disclose private settlement discussions.”
“Aside from the deliberate falsity of those characterizations,” the letter continues, “both you and your clients know that the public disclosures made by Chairman Gowdy and the Benghazi Committee clearly violate both the Congressional Accountability Act and the Mediation and Confidentiality Agreement that you both signed.”
The letter, from Podliska’s three attorneys, is addressed to the House Employment Counsel’s office. A cease-and-desist letter does not bind the recipient in any legal way, but provides a formal attempt to put a party on notice of allegedly improper or illegal acts.Podliska’s charge that the committee was aimed at damaging Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, came as Democrats have increasingly been making the same claim. They’ve been bolstered by comments made earlier this month by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, which linked the committee’s existence to Clinton’s falling poll numbers. Clinton is set to appear before the committee October 22.
Romer-Friedman also said Gowdy falsely claimed he had never met Podliska. In fact, Podliska says, they met on two occasions during committee work.
“His view is that Chairman Gowdy’s statement that they never met is false, because at least two times they were in a room together where he briefed Chairman Gowdy,” said Romer-Friedman.
Podliska expressed surprise that the chairman claimed not to know him, Romer-Friedman added, given the two briefings and the “modest size” of the committee’s staff.
Podliska has yet to file a legal complaint, and his charges consist of one side of a hotly contested factual and legal dispute. His legal team’s swift and assertive responses to Gowdy, however, suggest their client is ready to make his case in the court of public opinion long before his suit makes its way to court.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Podliska by the wrong first name.