Maverick Moves On

Pentagon whistleblower Ernie Fitzgerald hangs up his spurs after a career fighting government waste.

For most veteran Defense Department civil servants, the Pentagon would be the logical place for a retirement ceremony. But in the case of A. Ernest "Ernie" Fitzgerald, 80, it seemed only fitting that on Feb. 27, the symbolic finish to a unique career in federal service would not be there but in a hearing room at the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

It was in a similar room in 1968, that Fitzgerald, then a civilian Air Force analyst, candidly told Sen. William Proxmire's Joint Economic Committee about a likely $2.3 billion cost overrun in the Air Force's C-5 cargo aircraft program. And it was there on Capitol Hill that Fitzgerald's real career-as Washington's most famous and tenacious whistleblower-began.

Having previously been advised to "play dumb" during the C-5 hearing, Fitzgerald said, he was subjected afterward to all manner of harassment by the Air Force, ranging from being shut out of meetings to having his mail opened and his life investigated. Once directed to review some of the Air Force's highest profile programs, his new assignments included such esteemed endeavors as auditing a Defense Department bowling alley construction project in Thailand. And all that happened before Richard Nixon became president. Not long after he took office in 1969, it was reported that Nixon told aides to "get rid of that son of a bitch." In short order, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird fired Fitzgerald.

But Fitzgerald's termination hardly shut him up. In fact, it fired him up, prompting him to write the muckraking classics The High Priests of Waste (Norton, 1972) and The Pentagonists: An Insider's View of Waste, Mismanagement and Fraud in Defense Spending (Houghton Mifflin, 1989). He lectured nationally on Pentagon profligacy and the lack of congressional oversight. After several years, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and devoted pro bono attorneys, Fitzgerald succeeded in getting back his job.

Over the years, Fitzgerald inspired zealous congressional overseers-including Proxmire, the late Democratic senator from Wisconsin, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa-through testimony and sometimes on detail to their staffs. Although hardly as visible in recent years as in his heyday, Fitzgerald nonetheless managed to draw the ire of the current administration. Last year, after reviewing his complaint that his small staff of analysts had been decimated, the federal judge who restored him to his job ruled that the Air Force no longer had any obligations to the court or Fitzgerald.

After Fitzgerald decided that at 79 it was time to leave government service, acting Defense Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble personally intervened to ensure that Fitzgerald's files and pension were in order. At Fitzgerald's retirement gathering, Gimble awarded him the Defense IG's Distinguished Civilian Service Medal.

The award was perhaps a nice capstone to Fitzgerald's career, but there was an appropriately maverick and marginal quality to the ceremony. Grassley, who officiated, was eloquent and his words heartfelt: "To Ernie, saving the taxpayers' money was never just a goal-it was more than that. It was more like a calling. It was a matter of faith to him-keeping the faith with taxpayers."

Only two reporters were on hand to cover the event. And mere minutes after Fitzgerald began to accept the hand and congratulations of longtime friends and colleagues, he and his well-wishers were all but herded out of the room by a coterie of Senate staffers. It was an indicator, perhaps, that on the road of the whistleblower, it's always night-but certainly not one Fitzgerald has gone gently into.

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