IRONICALLY, Jennifer A. Fitzgerald's slide from high estate may have been greased several years ago by her namesake, A. Ernest Fitzgerald. Mr. Fitzgerald is best known as America's most famous whistle-blower whose earliest claim to fame was to have been fired by the Nixon administration for disclosing billions of dollars of Pentagon cost overruns associated with the C5A military transport plane. He later went on in life to give former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger fits about overpriced spare parts.

Jennifer Fitzgerald, on the other hand, is the State Department's deputy chief of protocol who deviated into some highly improper conduct when she returned to this country from Argentina with a silver fox cape and a fur-lined raincoat, which she bought down there but failed to fully declare up here. Today, she's $648 poorer, courtesy of the Customs Service, and now has been unceremoniously brought up on "gross misconduct" charges at the State Department and is facing a punishment of 15 days without pay. The connection between the Fitzgeralds is this: the government got on her trail thanks to an anonymous call that came in over the State Department inspector general's "hotline," one of several "reforms" spawned by Ernest Fitzgerald's campaigns against fraud, waste and abuse.

While she may be more famous, Jennifer Fitzgerald is only one of dozens nabbed by the State Department's IG, or "watchdogs," as they are called. At last count, the department had achieved 29 criminal convictions and levied more than 140 administrative sanctions -- suspensions, terminations and reprimands -- against Foggy Bottom rule breakers, and these numbers include three assistant secretaries and 12 ambassadors. The watchdog office has a $24 million annual budget and is fed by dozens of hotline calls and letters, 40 percent of which are anonymous. In fact, just about every government agency has a watchdog; at last count there were something on the order of 50 inspectors general around town, all equipped with staffs, hotlines and protective cloaks of anonymity to offer those who wish to use them.

In hearings before the House Government Operations Committee two years ago, the General Accounting Office reported that since these operations were established in 1978, they have saved the U.S. taxpayer more than $100 billion. It is difficult to argue with success, so we won't try. There are, nonetheless, a few questions that do come to mind as we reflect on the proliferation of "hotlines" and watchdogs and whistle-blowers throughout the federal government.

Are there safeguards to prevent the "hotline" from becoming a perverted version of the old suggestion box able to be manipulated by ax-grinders, self-promoters and character assassins seeking to advance their own ambitions? Can employees become investigative targets solely on the basis of information obtained from unidentified sources whose bona fides have not been established? What about the rights of the accused in noncriminal matters? What effect does any of this have on the morale of public servants and the bonds of trust that should exist between federal managers and their employees? Finally, who has got a good grip on the watchdogs' leash? Congressional oversight committees should take care that they not become so dazzled by the reports of IG body counts and dollar recoveries that they become blind to any possible down-sides of the operations.