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Private eye looks back over decades of dirt-digging in Washington

  • Private investigator Terry Lenzner takes in the view from his Washington office on October 4. Lenzner has been called one of the most feared men in Washington, for probes that have exposed high-profile secrets. Illustrates PRIVATE-EYE (category l), by Richard Leiby (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson).

    Private investigator Terry Lenzner takes in the view from his Washington office on October 4. Lenzner has been called one of the most feared men in Washington, for probes that have exposed high-profile secrets. Illustrates PRIVATE-EYE (category l), by Richard Leiby (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson).

  • Private investigator Terry Lenzner, second from right, shakes hands with former President Richard Nixon in 1969. Donald Rumsfeld, second from left, and Dick Cheney, right, were also at the meeting. Lenzner has a history with power players in Washington and has just published the autobiography “The Investigator” about his life as a private eye. Illustrates PRIVATE-EYE (category l), by Richard Leiby (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of the Lenzner Family).

    Private investigator Terry Lenzner, second from right, shakes hands with former President Richard Nixon in 1969. Donald Rumsfeld, second from left, and Dick Cheney, right, were also at the meeting. Lenzner has a history with power players in Washington and has just published the autobiography “The Investigator” about his life as a private eye. Illustrates PRIVATE-EYE (category l), by Richard Leiby (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of the Lenzner Family).

  • Private investigator Terry Lenzner is shown in his Washington office on October 4. Lenzner has been called one of the most feared men in Washington, for probes that have exposed high-profile secrets. Illustrates PRIVATE-EYE (category l), by Richard Leiby (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson).

    Private investigator Terry Lenzner is shown in his Washington office on October 4. Lenzner has been called one of the most feared men in Washington, for probes that have exposed high-profile secrets. Illustrates PRIVATE-EYE (category l), by Richard Leiby (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson).

  • Private investigator Terry Lenzner, who has been called one of the most feared men in Washington for probes that exposed high-profile secrets, details his life’s work in the new autobiography “The Investigator.” Illustrates PRIVATE-EYE (category l), by Richard Leiby (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post).

    Private investigator Terry Lenzner, who has been called one of the most feared men in Washington for probes that exposed high-profile secrets, details his life’s work in the new autobiography “The Investigator.” Illustrates PRIVATE-EYE (category l), by Richard Leiby (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post).

  • Private investigator Terry Lenzner takes in the view from his Washington office on October 4. Lenzner has been called one of the most feared men in Washington, for probes that have exposed high-profile secrets. Illustrates PRIVATE-EYE (category l), by Richard Leiby (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson).
  • Private investigator Terry Lenzner, second from right, shakes hands with former President Richard Nixon in 1969. Donald Rumsfeld, second from left, and Dick Cheney, right, were also at the meeting. Lenzner has a history with power players in Washington and has just published the autobiography “The Investigator” about his life as a private eye. Illustrates PRIVATE-EYE (category l), by Richard Leiby (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of the Lenzner Family).
  • Private investigator Terry Lenzner is shown in his Washington office on October 4. Lenzner has been called one of the most feared men in Washington, for probes that have exposed high-profile secrets. Illustrates PRIVATE-EYE (category l), by Richard Leiby (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson).
  • Private investigator Terry Lenzner, who has been called one of the most feared men in Washington for probes that exposed high-profile secrets, details his life’s work in the new autobiography “The Investigator.” Illustrates PRIVATE-EYE (category l), by Richard Leiby (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post).

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

That he braved the Klan as a federal attorney investigating the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi during “Freedom Summer.”

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 Don Rumsfeld came to the rescue.

(Whew.)

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 earlier this month, it is a time capsule of adventuresome sleuthing and traces the contours of U.S. political history.

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 throughout the world.

“Scorch the earth,” 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 Washington home. 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 of lawyering.

Never done 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, Lenzner’s career has a cinematic sweep.

It’s worth mentioning three movies. His life or his firm intersects with all of them.

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 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 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

Lenzner 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 large plate-glass 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. Both are reality-based and touch on the firm’s stock in trade: data gathering and background checks often sought by white-collar clients.

There’s The Insider, about Jeffrey Wigand, an executive at the Brown & Williamson tobacco firm who defected and became a whistleblower. In the mid-’90s, he and his former employer were embroiled in litigation.

In real life, Lenzner’s firm – working for B&W’s attorneys – 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.

“A close look at the file, and independent research by this newspaper into its key claims, indicates that many of the serious allegations against Mr. Wigand are backed by scant or contradictory evidence.”

Lenzner’s book ignores the tobacco case except for a brief aside. But in an email, he offered this:

“A senior employee brought the case to me, described what the client wanted and on the face of it, the request appeared to be legitimate. In essence they were asking for basic research on an individual, which is something we do all the time. If I had had the full context of the client’s goals, I might well have reconsidered undertaking the assignment.”

Finally, there’s Shattered Glass, a movie about New Republic plagiarist Stephen Glass: The magazine hired IGI to investigate his fabrications. It needed the kind of rigorous search for truth Lenzner was famed for.

In their sweep of Glass’s computer, IGI experts established clear evidence. Lenzner said he also came across a freelance piece Glass had done for the now-defunct George magazine, about Washington “power players.”

The article helped seal Lenzner’s conclusions. One of the players was Lenzner himself. “I guess it need not be said that Glass had never interviewed me and that many of the things he said about me were invented,” Lenzner writes.

∎ ∎ ∎

There is no lack of movie-worthy scenes from Lenzner’s life story, moments of both high drama and absurd circumstance, even if all of them won’t reach the screen.

“Yes, I held him hostage, it’s true,” said Geraldo Rivera, the Fox News host, of his historic collision with Lenzner 44 years ago.

Again, the back story:

After his work in the Justice Department, Lenzner took another Washington job in 1969. A Democrat, he went to work for Richard Nixon’s White House. Lenzner was brought into the Office of Economic Opportunity by its chief, Donald Rumsfeld, who had a spot in the president’s Cabinet.

“I had an instant rapport with him,” Lenzner writes of Rumsfeld.

But the future secretary of defense wasn’t digging the vibe at the anti-poverty agency, a Johnson administration creation.

It fell to the 29-year-old Lenzner to supervise 2,200 Legal Services Program lawyers who were aggressively filing suits on behalf of the poor.

Republican governors like Ronald Reagan in California complained of being sued by shaggy-haired radicals paid by Washington. Nixon grew unhappy with the whole Lenzner-headed operation. Some minority lawyers attached to the program weren’t happy, either. This is where Rivera, then a chairman of the Black and Brown Lawyers Caucus, comes in.

One August day in 1969, he was one of about 50 newly graduated lawyers, many from Howard University, who decided to occupy the building that housed the Office of Economic Opportunity and Legal Services.

They wanted $1 million for a Legal Services fellows program at Howard.

Rumsfeld instructed Lenzner to escort the protesters to a conference room and hear them out. Lenzner did. Then they wouldn’t let him leave.

Into the room charged Rumsfeld, the former wrestler. “I took Lenzner’s arm and told him we were leaving,” Rumsfeld recounted in his memoir.

About a year later, as heat from the White House grew, Rumsfeld fired Lenzner. But there was no venom. They remain friendly to this day.

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