Terry Lenzner, the private eye who has seen it all, from Watergate to Microsoft

October 9, 2013

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 this week, 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 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. It’s now more polished,” said Nancy Swaim, who worked as an investigator in the firm’s Los Angeles office for more than seven years.

“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 Cleveland Park 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 former federal prosecutor seems to enjoy a tough interrogation. The cool, leafy calm of the morning is periodically brutalized by the roar of a chain saw as it chews through a neighbor’s trees.

“That’s appropriate background music,” he says, and smiles ever so slyly.

* * *

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 four movies. His life or his firm intersects with all of them.

First up, “Love Story,” a double-hankie romance set on the Harvard campus from 1970. The back story:

Lenzner, born in 1939, grew up in Manhattan in a well-to-do but troubled household. His father, a dentist, was unpredictable, sometimes violent and “often angry,” Lenzner writes in the book. His mother came from a wealthy New York family.

His father pushed Terry to play varsity football in the Ivy League, as he had done; the son ended up playing at the prep school Phillips Exeter Academy and later Harvard, and captained both teams.

As an undergraduate in Cambridge — he enrolled in 1958 — Lenzner also got to know Erich Segal, a brilliant classics professor and writer. Segal was a tutor at Harvard’s Dunster House, where Lenzner lived. They became friends. “We worked out together, went to the weight room, had dinner and lunch together,” recalls Lenzner.

In the novel “Love Story” and the screenplay — Segal wrote both — the character of Oliver Barrett IV had an athletic bent and a very difficult father. Oliver attended Exeter and Harvard and graduated from Harvard Law.

Oliver played hockey, and in the book, his height and weight are exactly the same as Lenzner’s.

Then there’s a 1996 letter to Lenzner from the late Segal.

“For the record, I hereby declare that you were the model for Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story,” Segal wrote.

It’s a bit weird. In 1997, Al Gore told reporters that he and his wife, Tipper, had been the inspiration for the central couple in Segal’s tale.

Lenzner said he couldn’t get into specifics about the letter. The late writer could have borrowed a “percentage” of Lenzner’s personal history, he says. “My view, very honestly, is that I was not the model for Oliver.”

Yet he didn’t hide the possibility that he was. It would become office lore at IGI.

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 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

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 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. He’s the movie’s protagonist, bent on revealing dangers of tobacco that many manufacturers denied. 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. Some of the charges — including that he pleaded guilty to shoplifting — are demonstrably untrue,” the Journal reported.

Some who know Lenzner remain disappointed that his company 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. The Wigand dossier produced by IGI shocked me.”

Lenzner’s book ignores the tobacco case except for a brief aside. But in an e-mail, 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.

* * *

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.

“You had this whole range of expertise you could tap into,” said Swaim, the L.A. private eye. “High quality . . . high class.”

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.

“He had an aura,” said Alex Kramer, who joined IGI in 1990 and stayed for a year. “I know people had incidents with him, but he also gave people great opportunities.”

Contact 10 or so ex-employees, and those willing to say anything at all are inclined to speak anonymously, not wanting to publicly cross the hot-tempered Lenzner, even many years later — and even though some profess great admiration for their former boss.

“He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” said Andrew Fox, an investigator who worked at IGI for 10 years. “But his ego drives the ship. I know people have left angry. But that’s not anything necessarily different from any other workplace.”

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.

In recent interviews, some ex-employees said they obtained such records from “information brokers,” whose information-gathering techniques were sometimes called into question. The practice was widespread among PIs; only later would federal laws protect such material.

Lenzner emphatically denies that the firm ever accessed or used anything but materials in the public domain — otherwise they couldn’t be used in court. And, he says, no one at the company ever violated legal boundaries.

“It would have been suicide for us to have done anything to step out of line the slightest bit,” he said, noting that he is a lawyer and that many of his clients are, too. “And we never did.”

David Fechheimer, 72, a legendary San Francisco private eye who did various projects for Lenzner’s company, said he admired its investigative creativity.

“IGI believed in street work and human contact,” he said. “And they would take risks; not legal risks, but the risks of getting caught. They would mount interesting undercover and sting operations.”

When the boss ordered people to “scorch the earth” for information, they did. “It was an amazing, intense three years,” said Philip Davis, an Alexandria researcher who worked as a forensic accountant at IGI. “You came out of there thinking, ‘I can find anything.’ ”

How volcanic was the boss?

“Calling him General Patton on steroids is not overstating him,” Davis said. “But I love Terry Lenzner. Terry’s toughness made me sharper. . . . Talk about jumping into the fire wearing a suit made of newspapers.”

* * *

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, including a stint as an organized-crime prosecutor in New York, Lenzner took another Washington job in 1969. A Democrat, he went to work for Richard Nixon’s White House — the political equivalent of walking into a threshing machine.

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; Che Guevara’s face adorned posters on the walls, Rumsfeld later wrote disapprovingly.

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 — battling police violence, protecting the rights of blacks and migrant workers, and taking cases that generally bedeviled the Establishment.

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 at 19th and M streets that housed the Office of Economic Opportunity and Legal Services.

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

“We did it on the fly,” Rivera recalls. “Once we got there, I don’t recall that we intended to keep Secretary Rumsfeld captive, or Terry, who we liked.”

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. But the protesters wouldn’t let Lenzner go.

“I’d say Terry was friendly, but he was representing the Man,” Rivera noted.

Eventually Rumsfeld summoned the cops. “I was later told that I had caused the arrest of the major fraction of the graduating class of Howard Law School,” he wrote.

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.

Dissolve to the back patio.

* * *

Lenzner, who has suffered from heart problems, seems mellower now. But he isn’t ready to completely loosen his gasp 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. Yet he admits that he has never been good at running a business.

Lenzner recently brought in his son Jonathan, a former federal prosecutor, to join senior management. (It should be noted that Jonathan Lenzner is married to a Post reporter.)

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

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 chain saw is still going.

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
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