By Peter Carlson
Updated December 09, 1985 12:00 PM

To anyone who sat transfixed before a TV during the Watergate hearings, it was a familiar scene—the august committee room, the Congressmen punctuating questions with probing forefingers, the witness squinting under the hot television lights. This time the inquisitors were members of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations; the witness was Secretary of the Air Force Verne Orr, and the subject was “The Harassment of A.E. Fitzgerald.”

Rep. Gerry Sikorski of Minnesota: It is my understanding that you have praised Mr. Fitzgerald for assisting in saving dollars for the taxpayers. Would it be an exaggeration to say we’re talking about millions of dollars?

Secretary Orr: I think that’s no exaggeration.

Sikorski: On Nov. 3, 1983 I believe you told Senator Grassley in his office that Mr. Fitzgerald is “the most hated person in the Air Force.” Do you recall that?

Orr: Yes, sir.

The “most hated person in the Air Force” observed this dialogue without a trace of emotion. A. Ernest Fitzgerald is not a demonstrative or flamboyant man. At 59, he has gray hair, wears gray suits and gray-framed glasses, drives a gray car. He is a career government bureaucrat, and he carries the customary tool of his trade—the briefcase. But Fitzgerald’s briefcase is not gray. It is a big brown leather satchel that looks as old and as battered as a pony express saddlebag. And when he sits in a congressional hearing room and reaches into it to pull out a document, people in the Pentagon squirm.

Ernie Fitzgerald’s official Air Force job title is “management systems deputy” but he is famous as the Pentagon’s premier whistle-blower. At a congressional hearing in 1968 he revealed a huge cost overrun on the Air Force’s controversial C-5A transport plane. Since then he has testified more than 50 times before congressional committees, telling of various other overruns, screwups and rip-offs. “Committing truth,” he calls it, with a characteristically wry grin.

Fitzgerald’s testimony has earned him high praise on Capitol Hill. “He’s tremendous,” says Sen. William Proxmire. “He’s one of the very few people in government who has made a difference, and he’s done it in an astonishing way.” The Pentagon is of course less enthralled with Fitzgerald. Over the past 17 years the Air Force has responded to his candor by demoting him, denying him access to documents, swamping him with busywork, investigating his private life, even firing him. But Fitzgerald has always managed to fight back, using two powerful weapons—lawsuits and a cutting country wit. “I carried on a long legal fight in the courts,” he told the House subcommittee last month in his Alabama drawl. “I used to say I was the only bureaucrat in the world suing for more work.”

Fitzgerald didn’t set out to become a whistle-blower; it happened almost by accident. A native of Birmingham, he served in the Navy during World War II, then returned home to earn a degree in industrial engineering at the University of Alabama in 1951. He worked as an industrial engineer for various companies—concentrating mostly on the aerospace business—until the Air Force hired him as an in-house cost-cutting manager in 1965. Fitzgerald was so eager to get at the “stupendous waste” he had seen in weapons systems that he took a $10,000 pay cut (agreeing to a $23,000 salary) to go to the Pentagon. He soon learned that his job wouldn’t be easy. Defense contractors are often huge companies with powerful friends, and the Pentagon does not encourage employees to fight them. As one general told Fitzgerald with no hint of irony, “Inefficiency is national policy.”

Then in the fall of 1968 came the now-legendary C-5A affair. In 1965 the Pentagon had awarded Lockheed the contract to build 120 of the huge cargo transport planes for about $3 billion. But the costs kept rising, and by 1968 word had spread that the final price might be closer to $5 billion. Senator Proxmire heard those rumors and called several Pentagon officials, including Fitzgerald, to testify before his Joint Economic Committee. At meetings in the Pentagon, word went out to the witnesses: Play dumb. At another meeting, in the Fitzgerald home, there was a different reaction. “I told him that I didn’t really think I could live with a man I didn’t respect,” recalls Fitzgerald’s wife, Nell, 57, “and if he went over there and lied, I’d have no respect for him.”

The next day Proxmire asked Fitzgerald if the C-5A might really be $2 billion over budget. Fitzgerald waffled for a while, spinning out a long paragraph of bureaucratese, before finally committing truth: “Your figure could be approximately right.” That seemingly innocuous statement changed Fitzgerald’s life forever. When he returned to his office, his secretary asked, “Have you been fired yet?” No, not yet. First the Air Force began harassing Fitzgerald, opening his mail, excluding him from meetings and investigating his private life, which failed to yield any scandal. Then officials stopped him from working on big-weapons contracts and put him to work auditing a military bowling alley in Thailand. In January 1970 his job was abolished and he was out on the street. Fitzgerald is shy about revealing the private side of his story, but his wife remembers trying to explain the firing to the couple’s children—Nancy, then 13, John, 10, and Susan, 6. “The children were upset of course,” she says. “But we told them that there was nothing to worry about, that everything would be all right—all those little fairy tales.”

Fitzgerald believed those fairy tales himself. He thought he could simply return to the private sector at a higher salary—”go back on the gold standard,” he said. But it didn’t work out that way. “I was blackballed,” he says. “I couldn’t get work in a field where I’d had no problem getting work before.” So he hit the lecture circuit, wrote a memoir of his Pentagon experience—The High Priests of Waste—and did some consulting work for Proxmire’s Joint Economic Committee. He also sued to get his Air Force job back.

In 1973, after four years of legal battles, the Civil Service Commission ordered the Pentagon to reinstate him. It was a transient victory; the Air Force immediately transferred him to a lesser post. “It was a paperwork job, eyewash for the public,” he says. “I was specifically excluded from looking at the purchase of big weapons, which was my specialty.” So in 1974 Fitzgerald sued again. After another eight years he won again, regaining his old job and being awarded $200,000 in legal fees. Today Fitzgerald earns almost $70,000 as one of the highest-ranking career bureaucrats in the Air Force—the civilian equivalent of a three-star general. “I like to think of it as a six-star general—three on each shoulder,” he says with a laugh.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the infamous White House tapes revealed that it had been Richard Nixon who fired Fitzgerald. “I said, ‘Get rid of that son of a bitch,’ ” Nixon was heard telling his aides. Fitzgerald promptly sued Nixon for violating his constitutional rights and later received $142,000 from the former President in a negotiated agreement. That was a sweet victory and he smiles when recalling it. “I went down to my law firm and said, ‘What do you mean a check? I thought it would be small bills in a brown paper bag.’ ” Then he erupts in a bellow of laughter.

Victories over Nixon and the Pentagon have made Fitzgerald a legend or, as the New York Times once called him, “a folk hero to federal employees.” He doesn’t consider himself a hero, just a man doing his job. And he keeps at it. From 1982 to 1984 he compiled studies documenting huge markups of labor costs by six major defense contractors. Among his findings: At Boeing direct labor costs on the cruise missile were $14 per hour, but the Pentagon was charged $114 for an hour’s worth of work; at Rockwell International costs on the B-1 bomber were $15 an hour, and the government was charged nearly $200 for the work. Fitzgerald also helped to uncover some of the now-famous spare-parts scandals—the 34-cent plastic stool-leg cap that cost the Air Force $916.55; the seemingly simple six-inch airplane maintenance tool that cost $11,492. “Fitzgerald is impeccably honest and extremely competent,” says Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which frequently uses Fitzgerald as an investigator. “He’s an expert in government procurement, and he has a superb nose for things that just don’t smell right.”

When Fitzgerald testifies before Congress, which is frequently, he generally comes bearing bad news. Those outlandish prices for spare parts are nothing unusual, he claims; billing for huge items like jet engines involves the same astronomical markups. And the rip-offs will continue, he says, as long as the Pentagon, which spends nearly $1 billion every working day, pays its bills by reimbursing contractors for any allowable expense they can document. As an alternative, Fitzgerald advocates a “should cost” approach, in which contracts would specify the proper cost of each item and contractors would be held to that price. “As long as the system is not changed,” he says, “you’ll have these horror stories.”

Fitzgerald leavens that grim message with a healthy dollop of humor. “When you see a beautiful jet flying overhead,” he once said, “you’re seeing a collection of overpriced parts flying in close formation.”

Not surprisingly the Pentagon doesn’t think this is funny. “Ernie has the capacity to really irritate people,” says his boss, Richard Carver, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for financial management. “He has a kind of antagonistic way of doing things.” Fitzgerald’s ideas—particularly “should cost”—are valid, Carver says; the problem is his lack of credibility. “The average guy in the Air Force is persuaded

that Ernie is more interested in headlines and raising heck than he is in getting the job done.”

And so the Pentagon’swarwith Ernie Fitzgerald continues. Last year the Air Force twice refused to allow Fitzgerald to give official testimony to Senate committees about Pentagon purchasing and auditing practices. Fitzgerald’s superiors suggested that he testify as a “private citizen,” which he refused to do. Ultimately the Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure subpoenaed him to testify in his official capacity, and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa personally delivered the subpoena to Fitzgerald’s Pentagon office, accompanied by TV cameramen. In his testimony Fitzgerald accused the Air Force of withholding important information from him. After another controversial appearance this year, Carver gave Fitzgerald an unfavorable annual job performance evaluation, complaining that he “lacked overall direction.” Carver later withdrew the evaluation, but the controversy led to the recent “harassment” hearing.

At that hearing Fitzgerald charged that the Air Force had cut his authority in violation of the 1982 court order that restored his job. “I’ve been diverted into bureaucratic busywork,” he said.

“Any day Mr. Fitzgerald doesn’t feel that he has the authority given him by the court,” responded Secretary Orr, “he can go back to the court.”

“I suppose that’s what I’ll have to do,” Fitzgerald said a few days later. “But I don’t want to. It’s a very grueling procedure.”

Indeed it is, and many of Fitzgerald’s colleagues wonder how he can keep up the fight after so many long, frustrating years. “I’m surprised he hasn’t thrown in the towel and gone off somewhere,” says Senator Grassley. “I’m surprised he doesn’t have an ulcer. I’m surprised he can still laugh.” But many of Fitzgerald’s colleagues believe it is laughter that has saved him. Fitzgerald agrees. “Some people come in here and get all outraged at the injustice of it all,” he says as he carries his huge briefcase through the halls of the Pentagon, heading for a meeting on Capitol Hill. “They can’t let go of it. They get obsessed. I can let go of it.”

Fitzgerald heads down a stairway, then pauses at a window. Outside in the Pentagon courtyard is a little gazebo that serves as a snack bar during good weather. “I have a fantasy about that place,” he says, smiling. “I see the Joint Chiefs of Staff making their last stand in there, besieged by an army of angry taxpayers.” His grin grows wider, more mischievous. “They’re in there, the Joint Chiefs, surrounded by sandbags and they’re saying, ‘We won’t let ’em take us alive.’ ” And then Ernie Fitzgerald throws back his head and lets out that mad cackle that keeps him sane.