STUMP » Articles » A Tribute to a Whistleblower and Watchdog: Ernie Fitzgerald » 17 February 2019, 07:00

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A Tribute to a Whistleblower and Watchdog: Ernie Fitzgerald  

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17 February 2019, 07:00

Before I start this post, which is about a person whom I learned about after he died, I want to take a moment to remember Bob Going, a friend whom I met online over a decade ago. My full remembrance is at my livejournal, which is how I met The Judge so many years ago, but here is something that may be of interest to my readers. Bob had an interest in the local history of his town, Amsterdam, NY. He wrote two books memorializing those who served (and some who died) in World War II, who had been in Amsterdam. Check them out:

REMEMBERING A GOVERNMENTAL WHISTLEBLOWER

Senator Chuck Grassley eulogizes:

Transcript of Grassley’s remarks.

Fitzgerald died at the age of 92 at the end of January.

I hadn’t heard of Fitzgerald before (I wasn’t even born yet when Nixon fired him), but there is so much of his professional life that is inspiring to me.

His memorial page is here, and here is some of the coverage of his life.

OBITUARIES

NYT: A. Ernest Fitzgerald, Exposer of Pentagon Waste, Dies at 92

WaPo: A. Ernest Fitzgerald, Pentagon whistleblower fired by Nixon, dies at 92

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.

He had been instructed to play dumb about the cost.

He did not.

Under oath, he said the C-5A was $2 billion over budget. In testifying, Mr. Fitzgerald later said, he was merely “committing truth.”

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?”

Whistleblower Protection Blog: A. Ernest Fitzgerald, once called “America’s most famous whistleblower,” dies at 92

A man once called “America’s most famous whistleblower” has died at the age of 92. In 1968, A. Ernest Fitzgerald, a top financial manager for the Air Force, revealed a $2.3 billion cost overrun in the Air Forces’ Lockheed C-5 aircraft program. He did it before Congress and in defiance of his superiors.

….
In 1996, he received the Paul H. Douglas Award, given each year to a “government official … whose public actions or writings have made a significant contribution to the practice and understanding of ethical behavior in government.”

Project on Government Oversight: A Tribute to Pentagon Whistleblower Ernie Fitzgerald

Ernie Fitzgerald, described in the pages of the Washington Post as “America’s best-known whistle blower,” was also “the most hated person in the Air Force,” according to Verne Orr, secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan Administration. By the time Fitzgerald died on January 31, 2019, in Falls Church, Virginia, he had also become the patron saint of government whistleblowers. He was 92.

His was an American adventure, but he didn’t ride the current of popular opinion—that more is always better—when it came to defending the nation. He was instead a strong swimmer against the tide of conventional thinking, one who believed that smarter spending would benefit both troops and taxpayers.

….
In November 1968, he was testifying before a congressional panel after reports surfaced that the projected cost of a fleet of 120 Lockheed C-5As had ballooned from $3 billion to nearly $5 billion. Senator William Proxmire asked him if the program’s estimated cost had really soared by $2 billion. Fitzgerald began by sticking to the Pentagon’s pre-approved script, unspooling rhetoric designed to obfuscate rather than illuminate. But then he quietly rebelled. “Your figure,” he told the Wisconsin Democrat, “could be approximately right.”

His life would never be the same.

Cato: RIP A. Ernest Fitzgerald

Early on, he served as chairman of the libertarian-founded National Taxpayers Union and then as chairman of the National Taxpayers Legal Fund. He told Reason that “in most respects” he considered himself a libertarian. He developed the idea for the Project on Military Procurement, which evolved into the Project on Government Oversight.

Chuck Spinney: Ernie Fitzgerald Remembered (I)

Being around people like Ernie Fitzgerald was one of the main reasons I loved working in the Pentagon. Most people working in the Department of Defense go along to get along; and while a majority (certainly not all) are patriotic, intelligent, and hard working … they are also boring. But there is something about military institutions that attracts a very few fun-loving, brilliant mavericks who love to throw rocks at the institutional boat, particularly when it is in the interest of committing truth and doing what they believe to be right in the face of incompetence or corruption or both — and all institutions that spend other people’s money, like the DoD, are prone to both incompetence and corruption. These mavericks have the same virtues as the majority — but they are definitely not boring, and they possess something else: an inner drive that is very rare. Their numbers are few, because military institutions hate them, view them as being certifiably crazy, and go overboard to expel them. On the other hand, these institutions need their “crazies” to stay healthy and vibrant. The late Ernie Fitzgerald was one of the most precious of the “crazies” — and he beat the expulsion game in a truly amazing way.

I first heard about Fitzgerald at the very beginning of my career in November 1968, when he testified — or in his words, “Committed truth” — to Senator Proxmire’s Joint Economics Committee on the huge cost overrun on the C-5A transport. At that time I was a 2nd Lt buried in the Flight Dynamics Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB, and congressional hearings were distant abstract affairs. But the newspaper reports of his testimony were electrifying. Moreover, they struck home; I had been hearing horror stories about the C-5, particularly its landing gear, for almost a year from one of my closest friends, also a 2nd Lt, who worked in the C-5 program office, which was just down the street from my office. My reaction was — Thank God, at least someone in DC has their head screwed on and is finally telling the truth about this piece of crap! Ernie immediately became a hero to both my friend and me.

I finally met Ernie 10 years later, when I was a civilian working in the Pentagon. Ernie had been fired by the Air Force, but the expulsion failed spectacularly. The AF was forced to rehire him, together with back pay, via a law suit that made it all the way to the Supreme Court together with some reckless statements about firing him by President Nixon that were discovered on the Watergate tapes. Ernie had become world famous, not least because, in his spare time, he also penned the High Priests of Waste, a best selling book about his adventures in the Pentagon and the underlying causes of cost overruns.

More at the link. He also had a Part 2.

WHAT WOULD ERNIE HAVE THOUGHT OF THIS

Jack Dean of Pension Tsunami pointed out the following to me:

The Government Legalized Secret Defense Spending

A change in federal accounting rules means the government can lie on its public accounting books and lie about how much it is spending on national security operations.

On October 4, 2018, the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB), a cryptic government body, released new accounting guidance that essentially legalized “secret national security spending,” as revealed in a report from Rolling Stone.

The new guidance allows government agencies to withhold information to taxpayers regarding if and when public financial documents have been modified. The guidance also allows the agencies to alter those financial statements and move line items to other lines.

I had never heard of this FASAB (not to be confused with FASB – the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which I know a lot about, as I write about it all the time for my job)…

What does the new ordinance permit?
The new guidance, SFFAS 56 – Classified Activities, permits the following, as summarized on fasab.gov:

an entity to modify information required by other standards if the effect of the modification does not change the net results of operations or net position;

a component reporting entity to be excluded from one reporting entity and consolidated into another reporting entity, and the effect of the modification may change the net results of operations and/or net position; and

an entity may apply Interpretations of this Statement, that allow other modifications to information required by other standards, and the effect of the modifications may change the net results of operations and/or net position.

Furthermore, “SFFAS 56 balances the need for financial reports to be publicly available with the need to prevent the disclosure of classified national security information or activities in publicly issued General Purpose Federal Financial Reports (GPFFRs),” according to FASAB.

The standard is here.

A video based on this article:

HISTORICAL EXAMPLE: SECRET FUNDS OF THE UK

I’ve been a fan of Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen as detective series. It’s not as hokey as you’d think, and one learns quite a bit of English history as a result (I certainly know more about the Napoleonic Wars.)

One of the major characters is Lord Harold Trowbridge, who is an aristocratic secret agent for the UK government. The books take place in the time of Austen’s life — that is, the Napoleonic Wars that she barely referred to (except for why the militia was in the neighborhood for Pride and Prejudice, as well as the naval activities in Persuasion)… but she was a news junkie like me, and in real life Austen was well-informed on these issues. She had two brothers in the Royal Navy – Francis Austen and Charles Austen, both of whom rose to high office in the navy.

I am currently reading Jane and the Waterloo Map, which takes place in 1815, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

Here are two references to the Secret Funds in that book:

In early books, while they mention the Secret Funds are used to fund espionage (and thus, their usage cannot be reported in detail to Parliament in open session), they also mention that the Funds, lacking oversight, were often used for non-espionage purposes… like paying off the mistresses of various high-placed men.

This is an issue with respect to intelligence activities throughout history — or, more specifically, when you get away from one man having power (the king), and multiple people trying to keep an eye on activities — you do want to fund legitimate clandestine activity in order to protect one’s nation. But given the amount of secrecy, that opens it up for corruption and misuse. It’s a tough problem, but the key to make it work often has been people of character, as demonstrated by Fitzgerald above.

But it’s difficult. Whistleblowers often hit hard times – they can’t continue in their own organizations (cf. Nixon firing Fitzgerald), and new organizations may be chary of associating with such a person. Other prospective whistleblowers know this — it takes a lot of courage to make public that which people keep hidden, which may have started out in an honorable way and then became corrupt.

In order to keep corruption from spreading, we have need of such people.

RIP, Ernie Fitzgerald. May we see many more government servants like you.


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