Memories of Ernie Fitzgerald

A Memorial from Government Accountability Project’s Legal Director, Tom Devine

This note is to give credit to the man who molded my vision for activism during the last 40 years and my work with over 7,000 whistleblowers. Ernie Fitzgerald recently died, but his legacy has taken root in a legal and cultural revolution for freedom of speech when it counts most. An early study of whistleblowers was entitled “In Praise of Difficult People,” a fitting description of Ernie, who was as difficult as he was funny and charming. But it is difficult people who make a difference changing the world. Ernie not only changed the course of history on many high stakes national issues but also the lives of countless whistleblowers and even my own. This note is to show gratitude where due to a great man.

Ernie served as my tutor about the natural laws of retaliation — the facts of life whistleblowers must contend with. He coined the phrase that whistleblowing is “committing the truth,” which highlights the fact that whistleblowers are too often treated like they’ve committed a crime. He also opened my eyes to the huge gap between whistleblowers’ legal rights on paper and reality. While Congress and many public interest groups were patting themselves on the back for the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, Ernie properly branded it the “Civil Service Deform Act,” because it took away federal workers’ access to court. He was right.

From that foundation, he was the architect of my still-incomplete legislative advocacy of the last 40 years. He taught me that legal rights would be unreliable, unless 1) whistleblowers could seek justice in court before a jury of the peers they risked their careers to defend and 2) defense workers had the same rights against back door termination through security clearance retaliation as they do for front door retaliation when they are fired. It’s personally humbling that despite the passage of 35 whistleblower laws domestically and internationally, federal employees still have neither of Ernie’s suggested protections. I know my work is not done.

Ernie was a founder of two organizations that are Government Accountability Project’s indispensable partners – The National Taxpayers Union and the Project on Government Oversight. Ernie cared about exposing the truth, regardless of the consequences. Both NGOs continue to carry on his legacy.

Ernie was a match-maker for many of my most significant clients, from the whistleblowers who blocked Star Wars’ next generation, to those who exposed massive scientific research fraud. Not content to be simply match-maker, he was a vigilant watchdog on the quality of my representation.

But Ernie was more than a watchdog. He was my conscience as an activist. Whenever personality clashes with difficult people made them seem impossible, Ernie was there to remind me why I had to finish what we started. While recognizing the incremental reforms I helped achieve, he never let me forget the core goals that still remain to be achieved so that whistleblower protection will not remain an unreliable right for federal workers.

And he was my hero, making the difference that has allowed me to continue being an activist during the last 40 years. When Government Accountability Project was first starting to get on its feet, I was on the verge of losing my home due to missed paychecks. Quite simply, continuing to serve whistleblowers would be financial suicide. I couldn’t sleep, faced with the choice of supporting my family or continued commitment to whistleblowers. Ernie nominated me to receive a “Defender of the Constitution” financial prize that freed me from agonizing about what in my soul was a Faustian choice.

Thank God for difficult people like Ernie Fitzgerald!