Terry Lenzner, a Harvard-trained lawyer who served subpoenas on President Richard M. Nixon before becoming one of Washington’s most dogged and feared private investigators, telling his employees to “scorch the earth” while digging up information for politicians and corporations, died April 23 at a hospital in the District. He was 80.
He had dementia and had been diagnosed with pneumonia and leukemia after being admitted to the hospital Sunday, said his daughter, Emily Lenzner. He had tested negative for the novel coronavirus.
Mr. Lenzner played a supporting role in many of the past half-century’s most high-profile political dramas, corporate high jinks and headline-making episodes, including the Watergate investigation and Monica S. Lewinsky scandal under President Bill Clinton. Roundly praised for his investigative skills, he boasted of uncovering anything a client wanted, even as he drew criticism for some of his firm’s methods — paying a janitor for trash containing Microsoft secrets, for instance — and for working with companies such as tobacco giant Brown & Williamson.
“I can’t think of anything I would say, ‘I really regretted that I did it,’ ” he told The Washington Post in 2013 after publishing a well-reviewed memoir, “The Investigator.” “It would have been suicide for us to have done anything to step out of line the slightest bit,” he added, referring to his investigative firm. “And we never did.”
Mr. Lenzner began his career at the Justice Department under civil rights chief John M. Doar, investigating the “Mississippi Burning” killings and the “Bloody Sunday” attack on civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala. He later took on organized crime in New York City with U.S. Attorney Robert Morgenthau, investigated Nixon’s dirty tricksters as a lawyer with the Senate Watergate Committee and spent a decade in private practice, exposing cost overruns in the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline before founding his Washington-based investigative firm, Investigative Group International (IGI).
Enlisting the help of financial specialists, investigative reporters and law-enforcement veterans, he oversaw undercover operations, tracked down phone records and credit reports, and investigated the death of Princess Diana for the father of her companion Dodi Fayed. Admirers said he helped bring “opposition research” into the mudslinging modern era, probing deeper into the lives of clients’ enemies and antagonists, for better or worse, than some of his predecessors had ever believed possible.
“In the old days a congressman would have some old pol back in the home district with his ear to the ground for gossip about any potential candidates,” Frank Mankiewicz, a public relations executive and former top aide to Robert F. Kennedy, told The Post in 1998. However effective they may have been, such investigators “didn’t have the background and the training, much less the technology, to go after things like phone records and the like.”
The rise of firms such as IGI, Mankiewicz added, “puts things on a whole new level.”
Critics such as New York Times columnist William Safire, a former Nixon staffer, called Mr. Lenzner a “big bully,” and he was increasingly villainized after his firm produced a 500-page dossier on tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand that Brown & Williamson leaked to the Wall Street Journal. The document portrayed Wigand as a liar and a crook, but many of its allegations were “backed by scant or contradictory evidence,” the Journal reported in 1996, or were “demonstrably untrue.”
Mr. Lenzner was also scrutinized for working with Clinton’s legal team on the Whitewater real estate scandal and Paula Jones sexual harassment case, with former Clinton strategist Dick Morris calling him the head of “the White House secret police.” He was called to testify before the grand jury of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, about his investigative work on behalf of the president.
Mr. Lenzner said he aimed simply to uncover the truth and described his political investigations as scarcely different from those on behalf of companies preparing for a hostile takeover. Nancy Swaim, a former investigator in his firm’s Los Angeles office, once credited Mr. Lenzner with turning private investigation “into a white-collar profession, from the days of the old guys with a cheap suit and a bad haircut, the old gumshoe thing.”
While other Washington insiders operated with a smile and handshake, peddling influence and profiting from charm, Mr. Lenzner took a more aggressive approach. He was known as a fiercely combative manager — “Calling him General Patton on steroids is not overstating him,” a former IGI researcher told The Post in 2013 — and acquired a reputation for extraordinary competitiveness, especially on the tennis court.
“There was a wonderfully endearing pugnacity to Terry,” said Steven V. Roberts, a veteran Washington journalist who became friends with Mr. Lenzner while covering his college football exploits for the Harvard Crimson newspaper. “At the height of his investigative business, he almost prided himself on antagonizing people. It showed that he was the tough guy, that he was not playing the insider game. He was always someone who saw himself as a truth-teller.”
The youngest of three boys, Terry Falk Lenzner was born in Manhattan on Aug. 10, 1939. Raised on the Upper East Side, he was bedridden for months with a bout of rheumatic fever that made him attuned to the sounds of ambulances, neighbors and fights between his mother, a homemaker, and father, a dentist.
“The sounds of their angry conflicts made me want to find a different world,” Mr. Lenzner wrote in his memoir. “Knowing how to identify fear in someone’s voice is a useful tool. So is listening for subtle changes in tone to detect a lie. I became sensitive to the slightest changes in demeanor or mood.”
Encouraged by his father, a former Penn football player, to “go to the best schools and play football,” Mr. Lenzner did both, playing guard on the offensive line and serving as captain of the football team at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard College. He received a bachelor’s degree in government in 1961 after writing his senior thesis on Rep. John W. McCormack (D-Mass.), then the House majority leader. It served as his first investigative project and was adapted into articles published by the Boston Globe.
Mr. Lenzner graduated from Harvard Law School in 1964 and soon joined the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which dispatched him to investigate the murder of three civil rights workers, later dramatized in the movie “Mississippi Burning.” Fearing attacks from groups including the Ku Klux Klan, he slept on the floor of motel rooms, propping his mattress against the window in case of a shooting.
In 1968 he married Margaret Rood, a Justice Department colleague who now lives in Washington. She survives him, as do three children, William Lenzner of Encinitas, Calif., and Jonathan and Emily Lenzner, both of Washington; a brother; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Lenzner worked as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York and, during the early years of the Nixon administration, directed the Office of Economic Opportunity’s Legal Services Program. He was fired after 18 months by his boss, Donald H. Rumsfeld — the White House was irritated by OEO efforts that included legal assistance for a Black Panthers group — and went on to represent Catholic anti-Vietnam War activists such as Philip Berrigan before joining the Senate Watergate Committee.
Working as a deputy to Samuel Dash, the chief counsel, he made headlines after a July 1973 hearing in which he interrogated Richard A. Moore, a White House special counsel, reducing him “to stammering confusion,” according to a Times report.
“Terry really was the driving force for the investigation, and a major contributor to the public hearings,” said Marc Lackritz, an assistant counsel to the Watergate Committee. “He was always breaking new ground, uncovering new witnesses and ideas, and prodding all of us on his staff to keep doing the same thing.”
Later that month, Mr. Lenzner and Rufus L. Edmisten, the Senate committee’s deputy counsel, delivered a pair of congressional subpoenas to the Executive Office Building, demanding Oval Office tape recordings and documents that promised to offer new insights into the break-in at the Watergate complex and its subsequent coverup. Aides to Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor, delivered an additional subpoena for the recordings.
The White House refused to release the tapes, citing executive privilege, setting off a constitutional battle that culminated in impeachment proceedings and Nixon’s eventual resignation, in August 1974.
Mr. Lenzner launched IGI a decade later as an offshoot of his legal practice, and he retired from the firm in 2015. (It was led for several years by his son Jonathan.)
Among many other clients, Mr. Lenzner and IGI investigated the fabrications of New Republic journalist Stephen Glass; worked for Ivana Trump during her divorce from Donald Trump; and helped Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) during his 1994 reelection campaign by investigating the business history of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, whose work at Bain Capital was re-examined during the 2012 presidential election.
“There’s something satisfying about walking around with a reserve bank of information that nobody else has, or few people have,” Mr. Lenzner told the Times in 1998. “With an understanding of things that go on inside companies and universities and charities and governments. But I never would have had that chance if I hadn’t become what I have become. And I love that part. I’ll be frank with you on that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly referred to impeachment proceedings against President Richard M. Nixon. After the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment, Nixon resigned; the House never voted to adopt the articles, and he was never impeached.
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