A. Ernest Fitzgerald, a Pentagon official tasked with analyzing project expenses, was summoned to Capitol Hill in 1968 to discuss a new fleet of Lockheed C-5A transport planes before the Joint Economic Committee.
The revelation about the vast cost overruns made national headlines, stunning members of Congress as well as Mr. Fitzgerald’s superiors. Back at the Pentagon, he was met with a blunt question from his secretary: “Have you been fired yet?”
Mr. Fitzgerald lasted another two years in his position before President Richard M. Nixon ordered his dismissal. He went on to sue Nixon, an action that resulted in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case on presidential immunity and helped make him “America’s best-known whistleblower,” The Washington Post wrote in 1987.
Through his more than 50 subsequent appearances on Capitol Hill, said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), Mr. Fitzgerald all but single-handedly “created the concept of Pentagon waste and fraud. People didn’t even think about it. And now they very much understand it is happening,” even as policymakers have failed “to listen to his message,” she said.
Mr. Fitzgerald, alternately dubbed “the patron saint of government whistleblowers” and “the most hated man in the Air Force,” was 92 when he died Jan. 31, exactly 46 years after Nixon’s Oval Office taping system recorded the president discussing Mr. Fitzgerald’s ouster.
“This guy that was fired,” he told aide Charles W. Colson, “I’d marked it in the news summary. That’s how that happened. I said get rid of that son of a bitch.”
“The point was not that he was complaining about the overruns,” Nixon said in a separate conversation that day, “but that he was doing it in public. . . . And not, and frankly, not taking orders.”
The transcripts were made public as part of Mr. Fitzgerald’s effort to win $3.5 million in damages from Nixon and three of his aides — the final chapter in a legal saga that began soon after his C-5A testimony, when the Air Force inundated him with busy work, investigated his private life and launched a smear campaign against him, according to court documents.
In 1970, he was laid off from his position as a senior financial management specialist; he was told that it was part of a general staff reduction. Mr. Fitzgerald fought the dismissal with a lawsuit, and in 1973 the Civil Service Commission took his side, ordering his reinstatement with around $80,000 in back pay.
But while his job title was the same, the work was not.
“I’m completely excluded from the big weapons systems jobs,” Mr. Fitzgerald told The Post. “They keep me out of Boeing’s and Lockheed’s hair and all the big ones.” He was instead ordered to examine maintenance depots. As his daughter Nancy Fitzgerald-Greene said in an interview, the Air Force “put him in charge of inspecting bowling alleys in Thailand.”
In 1974, Mr. Fitzgerald sued again, this time targeting Nixon, in an action that went to the Supreme Court. In 1982, the justices ruled 5 to 4 that the president was “entitled to absolute immunity,” with Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. explaining that “because of the singular importance of the president’s duties, diversion of his energies by concern with private lawsuits would raise unique risks to the effective functioning of government.”
By then, however, Mr. Fitzgerald had won a victory of sorts: One year earlier, Nixon had secretly paid him $144,000 to keep the case from going to trial. Previously, Newsweek reported, the former president had offered to contact President Jimmy Carter to see whether he might be able to arrange Mr. Fitzgerald’s appointment to director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The Pentagon, however, remained Mr. Fitzgerald’s home for decades. Poring over contracts and financial records, he testified dozens of times before Congress and forged close relationships with leaders of both parties. In a tribute to Mr. Fitzgerald given Wednesday on the Senate floor, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) called him “a tenacious watchdog . . . a hero for taxpayers and a warrior against waste.” Years earlier, Proxmire told People magazine that Mr. Fitzgerald was “one of the very few people in government who has made a difference.”
In the early 1980s, as part of his battle against Pentagon waste and inefficiency, Mr. Fitzgerald developed the idea for the Project on Military Procurement, which evolved into POGO. The organization was designed to build on the findings of Pentagon insiders such as Mr. Fitzgerald, who uncovered inflated costs as well as evidence of falsified weapons tests, in which defense contractors were “cutting corners to get things out into the field,” Brian said.
Mr. Fitzgerald, who retired in 2006, also devised a novel strategy for explaining the extent of wasteful spending in the military, which he once estimated at $30 billion each year.
“An average person cannot relate to the overpricing of an airplane like the F-15 fighter or B-1 bomber or an M-1 tank, so first, we have to explain how the Pentagon’s overpricing scam works in terms of things they are familiar with, like toilet seats, hammers, screws, ashtrays, etc.,” he said, according to a remembrance by fellow military analyst Franklin C. “Chuck” Spinney. “Then, step 2 is simply to explain how an F-15 or B-1 bomber or M-1 is simply a bundle of overpriced spare parts flying in close formation.”
Among Mr. Fitzgerald’s findings: A plastic stool-leg cap that cost 34 cents, but was billed at $916.55; labor for a Boeing cruise missile, estimated at $14 an hour but paid at $114; and a six-inch airplane maintenance tool that, inexplicably, cost $11,492.
Separately, railing against unnecessary spending on large-scale defense projects, he cited a maxim he dubbed 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.’ ”
The older of two children, Arthur Ernest Fitzgerald was born in Birmingham, Ala., on July 31, 1926. His father was a patternmaker, and his mother ran a small farm.
Mr. Fitzgerald served in the Navy during World War II and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama in 1951. He worked in the aerospace industry and formed a consulting firm before joining the Air Force as a civilian in 1965.
By then he had developed a specialty, cost-cutting, that helped him earn a nomination for the Defense Department’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award. But the praise stopped flowing after the C-5A hearings, and during the years he was out of work, he and his family “went to the rice and beans diet a lot,” Fitzgerald-Greene said.
Mr. Fitzgerald died at an assisted-living center in Falls Church, Va., she said. The cause was not immediately known. His wife of more than 50 years, the former Nell Burroughs, died in 2012. In addition to Fitzgerald-Greene, of Falls Church, survivors include two other children, Susan Fitzgerald of Vienna, Va., and John P. Fitzgerald of Marlow, Ala.; and four grandchildren.
The precise cause of death was not immediately known, his daughter said.
While Mr. Fitzgerald had some success in renegotiating Air Force contracts and eliminating inefficiencies, he said his efforts to spur broader changes were repeatedly blocked. He recalled Air Force Gen. John “Zeke” Zoeckler once telling him, “inefficiency is national policy.”
“Some of the Pentagon scams we once deplored are viewed as virtues,” Mr. Fitzgerald said in 1996, in a mournful acceptance speech for the Paul H. Douglas Ethics in Government Award. “The unit costs of defense are scandalously high, and going up. Porking-up contracts for political purposes, always present, but formerly stoutly denied, is now a good thing. It makes good jobs.”
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