A man once called “America’s most famous whistleblower” has died at the age of 92. In 1968, A. Ernest Fitzgerald, a top financial manager for the Air Force, revealed a $2.3 billion cost overrun in the Air Forces’ Lockheed C-5 aircraft program. He did it before Congress and in defiance of his superiors.
Under oath, he said the C-5A was $2 billion over budget. In testifying, Mr. Fitzgerald later said, he was merely “committing truth.” The revelation about the vast cost overruns made national headlines, stunning members of Congress as well as Mr. Fitzgerald’s superiors.
In 1996, he received the Paul H. Douglas Award, given each year to a “government official … whose public actions or writings have made a significant contribution to the practice and understanding of ethical behavior in government.”
A biography posted on the award program website described the retribution against Fitzgerald.
He was stripped of his duties as an overseer and shunted to trivial projects, including a trip to Thailand where he was to study cost overruns on a bowling alley. Within two weeks of his testimony, he was told that his promised civil service tenure was a computer error, and his department was restructured to eliminate his position. It took four years and nearly a
million dollars in legal fees to win reinstatement to his office.
The Post reports that Fitzgerald was alternately dubbed “the patron saint of government whistleblowers” and “the most hated man in the Air Force.” He died 46 years after Oval Office tapes recorded Nixon talking about firing Fitzgerald.
After much legal wrangling, he was reinstated, but eventually left the Pentagon to form an organization called the Project on Military Procurement, which is the predecessor of the Project on Government Oversight.
Writing on Fitzgerald’s obituary website, former congressional investigator Jim Phillips says he received numerous leads from Fitzgerald over the years.
Ernie must be regarded as an historical figure in the ongoing effort to eliminate fraud and abuse from the procurement process and provide cost-effective weapons that actually work and are conceived for missions that make sense.
“He was a fiercely independent watchdog,” he noted in a written remark. “He was among the rarest of breeds. He brought uncommon devotion to his work.He prevailed despite the muzzles that many of his handlers, whom he called his “over-dogs,” used to try and silence him. It didn’t work. Because when Ernie sniffed wrongdoing, he would sink in his teeth and never let go. He was a bull dog.’