His former boss once called him the most hated man in the Air Force.

His associates say he is treated like a leper and an outcast by colleagues from the military.

His fans call him the godfather of the defense reform movement.

For two decades, A. Ernest Fitzgerald has been waging war with the Defense Department. It has cost him his job and earned him a reputation as America's best-known whistle blower. And when a federal court ordered the Pentagon to give him back his job, it only started another round of skirmishes.

Fitzgerald's title as Air Force management systems deputy sounds like one of dozens of bureaucratic positions squirreled away along Pentagon corridors. Fitzgerald's office, however, is far from typical.

He recently appeared on a morning network-television talk show waving a yellowed plastic airplane toilet pan, expounding on what he said was an exorbitant $642 originally charged to the Air Force.

He labels some military aircraft "collections of overpriced parts, flying in formation."

When it comes to the Pentagon's approach to many procurement problems, he'll recite what he calls Fitzgerald's First Law: "There are only two phases of a program. The first is 'It's too early to tell.' The second: 'It's too late to stop.' "

Such brutally frank criticism, part of his crusade to expose overspending and waste in procurement, has irked the Pentagon hierarchy. His boss questions Fitzgerald's motives.

"A lot of people . . . are still never sure whether this is a search for a headline, a little more time on TV, something to be used for a member of Congress to hold a hearing or to change the way we do business," said Richard E. Carver, Air Force assistant secretary for financial management.

Fitzgerald's reputation dates to the day in November 1968 when he told a congressional hearing that the C5A military transport plane would cost $2 billion more than the Defense Department's original contract. As a result, the Pentagon fired him, and he began a 13-year court battle to regain his job.

After almost five years back in the job that entails monitoring the Air Force's major weapons and equipment procurement and recommending improvements and cost savings, Fitzgerald says he is considering taking the government back to court.

He charges that Air Force officials refuse to provide him information needed to do his job and that top military brass are permitted to ignore his guidance and recommendations.

Fitzgerald said he has never been given access to all of the information he has needed since returning to the job. "The new regime is not even pretending. They've thrown the gauntlet down," he said.

He described a recent trip to an Air Force production plant where military officials refused to give him copies of documents and forced him to copy information he needed from a slide presentation.

"The blue curtain is the problem," said Fitzgerald, using his description for high-ranking Air Force officers.

"There's no question there are occasions" when Fitzgerald is denied access to material, Carver said, adding that he chided military officials who made Fitzgerald copy the information, rather than give him the documents. "I told them they were stupid," Carver said.

He noted, however, that "people are concerned how data might be used and to whom it might be given." He added, "When you read about a problem in the paper the first time, it makes it difficult to feel like a team member is there."

Congressional staffers who have worked closely with Fitzgerald in revealing fraud and abuse in military contracts see it differently. "No one has the backbone to stand up for what he's doing," one Capitol Hill aide said. "It's almost like a we-they thing. If you stand up for Ernie, then you're tainted."

Fitzgerald and some of his allies say the Air Force has blocked his efforts to restrict costs that contractors are allowed to charge the military. His boss complains that Fitzgerald is more concerned about "bits and pieces" of procurement problems than broad policies required to implement his proposals.

Fitzgerald counters that his boss "never really lets us complete" the big projects. Anyway, he says, "The small horror stories have made people understand there's a lot of waste, fraud and abuse."

Fitzgerald's efforts have gone far beyond small horror stories. He has worked closely with the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.).

The work of Fitzgerald and the subcommittee recently resulted in renegotiation of the Air Force contract with Lockheed Corp. on the C5B transport plane and saved the government $273 million.

Such successes help to offset persistent frustrations that come with the job, according to Fitzgerald, who was involved in exposing many overcharges for spare parts -- scandals that have rocked the Pentagon in recent years.

Fitzgerald notes that his efforts have embarrassed many Pentagon officials. His philosophy: "I don't think finding opportunities to save money should be embarrassing."

Fitzgerald and colleagues Thomas S. Amlie and Colin Parfitt work in tiny, cramped offices on the top floor of the Pentagon across the hall from the Air Force public affairs office.

Fitzgerald's office, barely large enough to accommodate a large desk and a few chairs, is cluttered with stacks of documents and files. Hallway clatter and conversation waft into his office through a vent on the inner wall.

While most military officers shun the operation, Fitzgerald said, "lower-ranking people sneak up and talk to us."

"It has to be tough sitting over there and being a leper with all your colleagues," said one congressional ally who works with Fitzgerald.

Friends say the affable, quick-witted Fitzgerald, an Alabama native, has survived the treatment and the frequently tedious work because he maintains a sense of humor. He refers to Carver, former mayor of Peoria, Ill., as "Hizzoner."

"I was never very successful with Ernie," Carver said.

Fitzgerald, who received a degree in industrial engineering from the University of Alabama, worked as a quality-control engineer and management consultant in private industry before being appointed to his first government job in 1965 as Air Force deputy for management systems.

In 1967, the Air Force nominated him for the Defense Department's Distinguished Civilian Service Award, according to his biography.

After his testimony on cost overruns before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress in 1968, Fitzgerald was subjected to almost constant harassment by the military. Fictitious conflict-of-interest charges were put in his personnel file, according to court testimony, and he was given menial work. Finally, he was fired from the Air Force in 1970.

Fitzgerald sued the government to regain his job and filed suit against President Richard M. Nixon who, according to Fitzgerald, ordered him fired for "committing truth." In 1973, a court ordered Fitzgerald reinstated. But the Pentagon gave Fitzgerald a lesser job, and he filed additional lawsuits.

Nine years later, a federal court ordered the Air Force to reinstate Fitzgerald to his original position and pay his lawyers $200,000 for legal costs and expenses. A year before that 1982 settlement, Nixon secretly paid Fitzgerald $144,000 after Fitzgerald promised not to force Nixon to trial for firing him, according to court documents.

Fitzgerald says he now finds himself on the verge of a return to court. He said he and his attorney plan to meet with the Air Force general counsel this week to discuss his concerns.

After years of battling the biggest bureaucracy in Washington, "we are frustrated," Fitzgerald said. "But you make a little headway every now and then."

BACKGROUND: Management systems deputy, Air Force. Appointed in 1965, fired in 1970 after testimony before Congress on Pentagon cost overruns. Reinstated after lengthy court battles. Before government service was management consultant in private industry. University of Alabama, BS in industrial engineering, 1951. Author of "The High Priests of Waste" and numerous articles on Defense Department procurement problems. Age 60.