Pentagon whistle blower A. Ernest Fitzgerald recovered $200,000 in legal fees after he won his lawsuit against the government to get his old job back.

A Colorado company accused of unfair labor practices was awarded more than $14,000 to cover its legal bills after the government lost the case.

Even the Ku Klux Klan may win some money from the government to pay for the cost of a suit it brought.

They all took advantage of the Equal Access to Justice Act, a nine-month-old federal law that allows small businesses, nonprofit groups and individuals who win legal disputes with the government to recover up to $75 an hour in lawyer's fees and other court costs if the government's position was not "substantially justified."

The law was designed to discourage agencies from bringing frivolous or unwarranted cases and enable people to fight out their battles with the government rather than give up when faced with the prospect of sky-high legal bills.

Since it took effect last Oct. 1, the law has spawned at least 40 federal court decisions and an equal number of rulings by agencies' administrative law judges, with even more requests for fees still to be decided.

But the amount of money private parties have won since then is far below the $125 million the Justice Department and other opponents had warned the law would cost in its first year alone.

So far, courts have awarded about $680,000 and agencies another $32,000 in legal fees and costs, although the exact amount of several additional awards remains to be determined and the government has appealed many of the assessments against it.

There's "no question" that the act isn't being used as much--or costing as much--as expected, said Stephen L. Babcock of the Administrative Conference of the United States, which monitors the law. "In fact, the awards this year will never even get to $1 million."

Why have successful litigants made so little use of the law, and tended to lose when they did ask for fees, recovering costs in just 16 of about 80 cases decided so far?

"People suspected the government was acting improperly in a lot more cases than they actually were," Babcock speculated.

In addition, he suggested, "it's also possible that because the act exists government agencies are taking a harder look at the cases they bring"--the chilling effect forecast by those who opposed the law, since agencies that lose cases must pay the costs out of their own tight budgets, unlike most other fee awards, which come out of a general fund appropriated by Congress.

"I've gotten lots of calls from agencies expressing great concern about the possibility of bankrupting themselves," Babcock said.

So far that doesn't seem likely to happen, although agency lawyers said the law was still too new to gauge its eventual effect.

"It is very difficult to consider litigation these days without considering the impact of the Equal Access to Justice Act on our budgets," said Justice Department attorney Susan Herdina, who is monitoring such cases for the department's civil division, which represents many government agencies when they are sued.

Even when the government doesn't have to pay for fees, Herdina and other government lawyers note, merely having to spend time fighting fee requests puts a strain on agency resources.

Stuart Weisberg of the National Labor Relations Board, which has accounted for half of the cases that were decided at the agency level, said that "there's been no change of policy at all in the general counsel's office to date, but one can only speculate what would happen in the future if, indeed, a significant number of these cases are lost."

Some fee requests "have really been staggering," Weisberg said. "I personally have some trouble with the concept that a company that can afford to pay $125,000 or $150,000 in legal fees essentially to keep out a union would square with my definition of a small business."

The law covers companies with net worths of under $5 million and individuals whose net worth is less than $1 million, along with nonprofit groups and agricultural cooperatives regardless of their wealth.

The biggest victor so far was the Greater Los Angeles Council on Deafness, which won $436,000 to cover its successful suit against several agencies. The group charged that the government had discriminated against the handicapped by failing to require a Los Angeles public television station to provide sign language interpreters for deaf viewers.

The award, which is currently on appeal, was made under both the Equal Access to Justice Act and another federal law allowing legal fees to be recovered in handicapped discrimination cases. The court paid the lawyers $175 an hour for their time, far above the $75 cap set by the new law.

Other cases have involved everything from a horse repossession under the Interior Department's Adopt-a-Horse program to tax quarrels with the Internal Revenue Service.

In the Ku Klux Klan case, currrently pending before a Louisiana federal court, the Klan sued to recover its legal fees after successfully challenging a school board regulation, supported by federal agencies, that banned any group that advocates discrimination from using school facilities.

The fee request reached the Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the lower court to reconsider in light of the new law.

If not for the act, whistle blower Fitzgerald would not have been able to recover any of the costs of his decade-long battle for reinstatement. Before the law was passed, Fitzgerald's lawyers had lost their fee requests; after it was in place they settled with the Air Force for $200,000.

A fee is "only going to be collectible where it should be collected," said Fitzergald's lawyer, John Bodner. "If the statute works properly, I think the government will correct its own actions so that it will not suffer the liability."

But Juan A. del Real, general counsel of the Health and Human Services Department, a defendant in the Klan and handicapped discrimination cases, worried that the cost of the law "may well turn out to be a substantial sum, depending on how many of these claims for attorneys' fees get made. As time goes on, there seems to be a progression in the numbers that are being filed."