Scorched earth: the private eye who’s the terror of Washington

Former civil rights lawyer Terry Lenzner transformed the investigation business, sifting through Bill Gates’s bins and Bill Clinton’s love life on the way

What can be said about Terry Lenzner, a curious hybrid of Harvard-trained lawyer and dirt-digging Washington private eye?

That he braved the Ku Klux Klan as a federal attorney investigating the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi during “Freedom Summer”, and survived flooding in Thailand.

That he paid janitors to obtain trash containing Microsoft secrets and supplied them to a tech-billionaire rival of Bill Gates.

That as the Senate Watergate Committee’s deputy counsel, he served a subpoena on Richard Nixon, demanding the White House turn over the tapes.

That he investigated the personal lives of women bringing sexual misconduct allegations against President Bill Clinton.

That he was held hostage by Geraldo Rivera, then a radical young lawyer, but that it was Donald Rumsfeld that came to the rescue.

And, finally, that he has written a memoir, The Investigator, which covers a remarkable 50-year career with periods of both light and shadow. Published this week, it is a time capsule of adventurous sleuthing and traces the contours of US political history.

Mr Lenzner, according to many in the private investigation business, helped to reinvent the trade, wedding it firmly to a high-paying world of corporate, political and legal clients. He founded the Investigative Group International, which grew into a well-regarded operation with employees nationwide and around the world.

“He changed it into a white-collar profession from the days of the old guys with a cheap suit and a bad haircut, the old gumshoe thing,” said Nancy Swaim, who worked as an investigator for the firm.

“Scorch the earth,” Mr Lenzner was known to tell his private investigators. His firm is legendary for its “opposition research” probes – political or otherwise – that expose unseen connections, surface uncomfortable facts and bore in on people’s blemishes.

A relentless perfectionist, he could inspire dread in his employees and his investigative targets. But a soul-searcher he isn’t.

“I can’t think of anything I would say I really regretted that I did it,” he says during an interview one morning on the back patio of his custom-built, modernist Cleveland Park home. Mr Lenzner is 74 now, and the dedicated lifelong athlete – football, tennis, basketball – is suffering from a bad back, using a cane. He speaks slowly, with a calculated deliberation accrued over decades spent working as a lawyer.

Never did anything wrong? “I can guarantee that I did some things wrong, and I could go back and do another book on all my mistakes,” he says. But he won’t be doing that.

The life of Terry Falk Lenzner – father of three, married 45 years, pal of top politicos – could have been as typical as any other Washington insider’s. But starting with his first government job at Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department 50 years ago, his career has a cinematic sweep.

Lenzner went directly to Harvard Law after college. When he graduated, he could have minted money as a corporate lawyer, but he said he felt disenchanted by his intern work at a Manhattan firm. Instead, in 1964, on the recommendation of a senior lawyer there – the great-grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison – he joined the civil rights division at Justice.

Which brings us to Mississippi Burning, the 1988 movie about FBI agents in the bloody early 1960s civil rights period when Lenzner was on the ground gathering evidence about the three activists’ murders, staring down violent racists who didn’t want blacks to vote.  Besides working in Mississippi, he also ran the grand jury investigating the “Bloody Sunday” beatings of marchers in Selma, Alabama.

Lenzner himself faced considerable risk. Checking into motels, he said, he would ask for a room in the back of the building. If there was only one facing the road, the young lawyer would hoist the mattress from the bed and prop it against the window. You never know who might try to shoot you. “After a while, you did get a little paranoid,” Lenzner recalls. He got used to sleeping on the floor.

Two other films capture the dark and light sides of Lenzner’s work at IGI during the 1990s.

There’s The Insider, about Jeffrey Wigand, an executive at the Brown & Williamson tobacco firm who became a whistleblower. He’s the movie’s protagonist, bent on revealing dangers of tobacco that many manufacturers denied. In the mid-Nineties, he and his former employer were embroiled in litigation.

In real life, Lenzner’s firm compiled a 500-page dossier portraying Wigand as a serial liar and petty crook, that B&W leaked to the Wall Street Journal. It backfired.

Some who know Lenzner remain disappointed that he allied with Big Tobacco, especially given his history in the Watergate hearings of encouraging truth-tellers to come forward.

“When I worked with Terry, I had the highest regard for his integrity and his instinct for the public good. I never thought he would take on a case where he would not be on the right side,” said the author Scott Armstrong, an investigator with Lenzner on the Watergate Committee who also worked as a consultant to IGI. “That was the Rubicon he crossed.”

Lenzner set up IGI in 1984 with three investigative reporters (including two from The Washington Post) and grew the business by bringing in diverse talent: FBI and CIA veterans, financial fraud experts, mergers and acquisitions specialists, lawyers and journalists worked side by side.

With his Watergate fame and fascinating background, Lenzner loomed larger than life among fresh-faced employees. Although known as a browbeater, he had stridden through history. Today the firm has been outflanked by competitors doing similar white-collar work and has downsized from 75 employees in its heyday to a core of 25. IGI gained considerable notoriety during the late 1990s, when Lenzner worked for President Clinton’s attorneys on the impeachment case. Some articles have criticized IGI’s investigative tactics; for example, methods for obtaining phone numbers and credit records.

Lenzner, who has suffered from heart problems, seems mellower now. But he isn’t ready to completely loosen his grasp as IGI’s chairman. He loves what he does too much, he says, to think about fully retiring. In the past, potential successors have been brought in, only to end up leaving.

As is true of many autobiographies, Lenzner’s book tends to burnish the victories, elide the defeats, settle scores, and ignore or dismiss critics.

But The Investigator establishes his legacy – and something more. “The book is intended to reflect lessons learned and stories about human nature,” he said.

Here’s something to consider. Terry Lenzner has been called one of the most feared men in Washington.

“That’s a compliment,” he says.

© The Washington Post

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