The National Journal’s Interview with Terry Lenzner
Terry Lenzner is the modern equivalent of a gumshoe. The Justice Department lawyer-turned-private investigator has paid a janitor to gain access to Microsoft’s trash, pursued the killers of three civil-rights workers in the Deep South, and hand-delivered a subpoena to President Nixon in the Oval Office (while members of Nixon’s staff cheered him on). Now he has chronicled his feats in a new memoir, The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth, which was released last month.
What does it take to be a sleuth?
“It’s a mixture of instinct, experience, a sense of curiosity, a lot of energy, taking some risk, and a willingness to go down rabbit holes that may or may not be productive,” Lenzner said in a clipped, raspy voice reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart. “You have to be interested in personalities and idiosyncrasies. I am fascinated by the way people make mistakes and go over lines that they shouldn’t. I have seen that repeated over and over again.”
The first time that Lenzner witnessed someone crossing a line was when he was a 21-year-old undergraduate at Harvard writing his college thesis on then-House Majority Leader John McCormack, D-Mass. Flattered by the attention of an Ivy League student, the future speaker invited Lenzner to his office in Washington, where Marty Sweig, McCormack’s chief of staff, “took a liking to me,” Lenzner recounts in his memoir.
One night, Sweig imitated McCormack’s Boston accent on the phone. “That struck me as odd,” Lenzner writes. “I was with Marty one day when he opened an envelope from a union leader and a $100 bill fell out. Marty used the money to take me to one of the most expensive restaurants in town, where he seemed to be a regular.”
Back in Boston, Lenzner submitted a thesis—later reprinted in The Boston Globe—that cast McCormack’s office in an unfavorable light but omitted some of Sweig’s transgressions. “I could have exposed it then, but I just wasn’t clued in,” he writes. “Marty Sweig came across as a nice guy to me. I was too naïve to recognize him as corrupt.”
The Investigator, which is chockablock with vignettes of this kind, reads like a detective series, with chapter titles such as “Murder of the Innocents” and “The Secret in Hank’s Safe.” Lenzner sees his career as a succession of “fortuitous twists and turns,” he said. “I wish I could say there was a grand scheme here, but I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
The first such event took place in 1964, when Lenzner was hired by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and deployed to the South to investigate the gruesome murders of three civil-rights activists—the inspiration for the 1988 film Mississippi Burning. One year later, Lenzner investigated the use of hoses and attack dogs to disperse demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. (Leading the protesters was future Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.)
After the Watergate scandal, Lenzner served as assistant chief counsel to the congressional committee set up to investigate the matter. The Nixon administration’s shenanigans were an “assault on democracy,” Lenzner writes. “The idea of one major party using dirty tricks to destroy the leading candidate of the other party offended me. Such actions undermine the electoral process and threaten the very foundations of democracy. No one knows who is pulling the strings. Voters are supposed to be able to choose between candidates on their merits, not have their choice made for them by the other party.”
Nonetheless, Lenzner remembers the Watergate scandal as a time of unity, not division. “We had very close cooperation with both Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “We traded and shared information. It was a healthy and unique situation historically. I don’t think we can have a repeat of that again, particularly with something as politically sensitive as an impeachment inquiry.”
After leaving government, Lenzer started Investigative Group International, a private investigation and corporate intelligence firm. Over the years, he has probed Frank Sinatra’s ties to the Genovese crime family; criminal behavior on the part of then-United Way CEO Bill Aramony; and the circumstances surrounding Princess Diana’s fatal car wreck in 1997. One takeaway from his work is that “non-lawyer investigators can be cost-effective and very competent,” he said. “This type of work is not something they teach in law school.”
Lenzner, 74, has three children and lives in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood.