NEW YORK — A. Ernest Fitzgerald, a tenacious Air Force cost expert who was fired after testifying to Congress in 1968 that a new fleet of aircraft had soared $2 billion over budget but who regained his job and continued to uncover waste at the Defense Department, died on Jan. 31 in Falls Church, Va. He was 92.
His daughter Nancy Fitzgerald-Greene confirmed his death.
A government whistleblower who preferred to be labeled a truth-teller, Mr. Fitzgerald testified more than 50 times on Capitol Hill about fraud, pork, and cost overruns. His blunt and often public assessments, delivered in an Alabamian drawl, led him to be treated as an outcast inside the Pentagon for many years.
In the 1980s, Verne Orr, secretary of the Air Force, called him “the most hated person in the Air Force.”
But he remained undeterred. He plowed through internal documents to bare boondoggles like Boeing’s vastly overcharging the Pentagon for its work on cruise missiles, and the Air Force’s paying $916.55 each for plastic caps for stool legs that had really cost 34 cents.
In 1987, Mr. Fitzgerald brought some of the Air Force’s overpriced spare parts onto “Late Night with David Letterman.”
In a tribute delivered on the Senate floor on Feb. 6, Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said Fitzgerald’s analyses had informed his ability to maintain oversight of the Pentagon budget since the 1980s.
“Ernie’s fiscal forensics uncovered mountains of mismatched receipts and invoice gaps that left taxpayers footing the tab for rampant waste and unchecked spending sprees,” Grassley said.
“Ernie,” he added, “was a sleuth for the truth.”
That reputation was secured on Nov. 13, 1968, when Mr. Fitzgerald, a civilian deputy for management systems for the Air Force, testified to the Senate Subcommittee on Economy in Government about the ballooning costs of Lockheed’s 120 C-5A Galaxy transport planes. Before he left home for the hearing, his wife, Nell (Burroughs) Fitzgerald, warned him that he had to tell the truth, even if his superiors did not want him to.
“I told him that I didn’t really think I could live with a man I didn’t respect,” she recalled in an article about him in People magazine in 1985.
And when Senator William Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat, chairman of the subcommittee, asked him about the C-5A overruns, Mr. Fitzgerald volunteered, “Your figure could be approximately right,” and outlined the program’s cost control and administrative failures.
“Cost control is essentially an antisocial activity,” he told the subcommittee. “Nobody likes an efficiency expert.”
Retaliation was swift. Soon after testifying, Mr. Fitzgerald lost his Civil Service tenure. He was removed from examining the costs of major weapons systems and shifted to audit Air Force mess halls and bowling alleys in Thailand. Then, a year after testifying, he was told his job was being eliminated. By early 1970, he was out of his Air Force job.
‘We profess to revere truth in the government, yet, when someone commits truth, they are in a heap of trouble.’
“We profess to revere truth in the government,” Mr. Fitzgerald said in an interview with The New York Times in 1983, “yet, when someone commits truth, they are in a heap of trouble.”
The White House had apparently been watching the drama. Alexander Butterfield, an aide to President Richard M. Nixon, wrote in a memorandum on Jan. 20, 1970, that Mr. Fitzgerald had been disloyal. His recommendation: “We let him bleed, for a while at least.”
A White House tape later showed that Nixon had approved of Mr. Fitzgerald’s dismissal.
Believing himself blackballed in his attempts to find a job in the private sector, where he had worked for 14 years after graduating from college, Mr. Fitzgerald battled to return to the Air Force. In 1973, the Civil Service Commission ordered his reinstatement. In the ruling, the chief appeals examiner said Mr. Fitzgerald’s firing had been falsely disguised as an economy move when it had actually been “purely personal.”
Upon returning to the Air Force, Mr. Fitzgerald continued to be excluded from examining the projects of contractors like Lockheed and Boeing. But he learned of financial abuses through others at the Pentagon and often worked with the staffs of Grassley and Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat (who died Feb. 7), to set up oversight hearings.
Arthur Ernest Fitzgerald was born July 31, 1926, in Birmingham, Ala., where his father, Arthur, was a metal and wool patternmaker and his mother, Grace (Montgomery) Fitzgerald, was a farmer and homemaker. After serving in the Navy, he attended the University of Alabama and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in industrial engineering.
He took a job with the Air Force in 1965.
“He had a friend who had started working for the Air Force while JFK was in office,” Fitzgerald-Greene said in a telephone interview, “and he alerted my father to the things they could do to save money in the military.”
Mr. Fitzgerald’s early work at the service earned him its nomination for the Department of Defense’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award in 1967. He received many other honors, including the Paul Douglas Award for Ethics in Government in 1986 from the University of Illinois. He retired in 2006.
Knowing that his relentlessness and public candor had hurt him within the Pentagon, Mr. Fitzgerald helped create a safe place for other whistleblowers — he called them his “closet patriots” — to leak unclassified documents without their identities being made public. In 1981, he, Dina Rasor, and Anne Zill started the Project on Military Procurement, which in 1990 was renamed the Project on Government Oversight, or POGO.
“He was officially marginalized in the Air Force, but he was still effective because people gave him information — he called it a Pentagon underground,” Danielle Brian, the executive director of POGO, said.
Mr. Fitzgerald continued to advise the oversight group until two years ago.
Mr. Fitzgerald wrote two books, “The High Priests of Waste” (1972) and “The Pentagonists: An Insider’s View of Waste, Mismanagement and Fraud in Defense Spending” (1989.)
In addition to Fitzgerald-Greene, he leaves another daughter, Susan Fitzgerald; a son, John; and four grandchildren.