During its development in the late 1960s, the C-5 Galaxy was more than $2 billion over budget – more than $7 billion in today’s dollars, and well more than the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The troubled program nearly broke the back of its developer, the Lockheed Corporation, and was the subject of House and Senate investigations once Congress found out about it. Enter A. Ernest Fitzgerald, once Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Management Systems, suddenly reduced to managing a bowling alley in Thailand before being dismissed altogether.
The reason for his dismissal was the disclosure of secret material… to the U.S. Congress. Eventually, he would be reinstated and, for the rest of his tenure in the Defense Department, he would be known as the “Most Hated Person in the Air Force.”
The C-5 Galaxy carries almost anything in the world but almost sunk Lockheed and the US Air Force.
Fitzgerald not only divulged the information to Congress, but he also testified before a Senate subcommittee on the subject of government waste, specifically targeting the C-5A program. He knew that just by testifying before the committee, he would be the subject of reprisals by his peers and his superiors. The program was years behind schedule and costing the government billions in its development. Lockheed, the civilian agency working on the program, even needed a bailout from the government to keep the C-5 program from taking the company down with it.
The expected reprisal was swift and harsh. Fitzgerald, a civil servant since 1965, lost his tenure, then lost his Pentagon position. He was transferred to managing chow halls and bowling alleys in Thailand before his job was eliminated completely. The entire process took less than a year and was approved by President Nixon himself.
“Get rid of that son of a b*tch.” – President Richard Nixon on Ernest Fitzgerald. No joke.
The C-5 Galaxy program was just the beginning for the man who preferred the term “truth teller” to “whistleblower.” His testimony to Congress was repaid in full by the Civil Service Commission when they forced the Pentagon to restore Fitzgerald. The man was shut out from oversight of weapons development, but secrets are hard to keep in the Pentagon. He continued to inform Congress about cost overruns and inefficiencies.
When Boeing overcharged the government for cruise missiles, Fitzgerald was there. When the Air Force paid 6.55 for plastic stool caps that cost 34 cents to produce, Fitzgerald told the world. He was even invited to show the American taxpayers on Late Night With David Letterman. Eventually, he was the go-to guy for whistleblowers in the Pentagon who wanted to leak info about fraud, waste, and abuse.
Fitzgerald died on Jan. 31, 2019, at age 92. He is remembered by everyone who ever tried to curb government spending, who thought that 0 was too much for a toilet seat, and the non-profit that carries his legacy forward, the Project on Government Oversight.