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His high-profile legal career spans the past half century, from the “Mississippi Burning” trial of the Civil Rights era to the death of Princess Diana. Terry Lenzner is an investigative lawyer whose influence extends far beyond his home base in Washington. He joins Kojo to reflect on his work both as a private and public investigator and to explore what he’s learned about Washington, how it works and how it can be fixed.
- Terry Lenzner Author, "The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth" (Blue Rider Press, 2013); founder, chairman, Investigative Group International
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Few things go together like Washington and a good hard high-profile investigation. Not the trench coat gum-chew private eye kind of case but you better -- you know, the kind of -- you-better-be-lawyered-up-with-the-best-team-of-attorneys-you-can-find kind of case. You could say that Terry Lenzner is a specialist in the latter. His legal career stretches from the days he investigated the murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi as a Justice Department lawyer in the mid '60s to the time he served Richard Nixon a subpoena during Watergate.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt was the first time anyone ever served a congressional subpoena to a sitting president, to the private work he did for Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings. But the nature of our politics, our news media and our access to information may be changing our expectations about the role of investigations in what Washington has become. Joining us to reflect on his long career and explore where his craft fits into our current politics is Terry Lenzner. He is founder and chairman of the Investigative Group International. He's the author of "The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth. Terry Lenzner joins us in studio. Welcome.
MR. TERRY LENZNERThank you so much. I appreciate meeting you and talking with you.
NNAMDIAppreciate the fact that you could join us. Lawyers of every stripe seem to grow on trees here in Washington, high-powered defense attorneys, crusading prosecutors. You carved out a niche for yourself as an investigator both in your public work for the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill and then later in your private work. What would you say makes someone a good investigator? And why did you choose this path for yourself? You're a Harvard-trained lawyer who had a lot of options to choose from as a law school graduate.
LENZNERWell, to start with that question, Kojo, I was a second-year law school student and working in a big New York law firm one summer. And at the end of the summer, a named partner who happened to be the grandson of the abolitionist called me into his office and said, you shouldn't waste your time in a law firm. Go see my friends at the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. And I said, sir, I appreciate that, but I don't know anything about civil rights. He said, just do what I tell you to do.
LENZNERSo I thought, well, I'm going to do what he tells me to do because he knows what he's doing and I don't. And I came down to Washington and I was told if I agree to go to work for the Department of Justice I would be put in the civil rights section and I would be stationed in Mississippi for the Freedom Summer of 1964. And I thought, that's going to be historic. I'm going down and do that. And that's what brought me to it originally.
LENZNERAnd I discovered that, first of all, didn't know anything about investigation because I'd just gotten out of law school. But second of all, I had discovered that I was good at the work. I was working with some FBI guys and some Department of Justice senior lawyers. And I found myself really good at it, interviewing people who had been injured in assaults on them when they were out after the 9:00 curfew in Philadelphia. And that's one of the areas that we started our investigation on. And I loved the work. I love talking to these witnesses. And that's what became my life.
NNAMDISee, I make a connection here between the person who advised you to do this, who was the grandson of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, it's my understanding...
NNAMDI...and his advising you to go to the Civil Rights Division. He saw something in you. I mean, he saw something in you that said, no a regular law practice is not what this guy needs. He needs to be in the civil rights movement. The title of the book says plainly "Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth." Is that what you've considered to be your greatest responsibility as a lawyer and an investigator, to uncover truth?
LENZNERWell, my primary responsibility is to assist clients in seeking assistance in whatever problems they're confronting. But as it became my experience in the kinds of cases I was dealing with, uncovering the truth seemed to me to be crucial, even if the truth had to come from the client him or herself. Because often we were not getting always the straight accurate story from the clients because they wanted to, can I say, convince us that here's what really happened. And often we would get to the investigation and determine it was not exactly what happened. And we had to go back and tell the clients, we can't go forward because that's not an accurate representation of what happened.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Terry Lenzner. He is founder and chairman of Investigative Group International. He's the author of the book "The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Where do you think the high-profile investigation fits into the cultural fabric of Washington? Do you think our ability to conduct such investigations reflects on the nature of our politics, 800-433-8850?
NNAMDIYou write that you got your first taste of investigative work and your first brush with corruption when you came to Washington as a college student to write a paper about former House Speaker John McCormack. What did you see then? What happened?
LENZNERWell, I saw then, first of all, that his top aide who was later indicted for corruption and bribery was trading government books to agricultural people in exchange for having assignments to the academies, to the West Point and Naval Academy. And having that to give to people who were residents of the areas that the congressman lived in.
NNAMDIAnd at one occasion you saw $100 bill drop out of an envelope?
LENZNERDropped out of an envelope. So we promptly went off to the most expensive restaurant that happened to be in Boston, which is where Congressman McCormack had his office and yes, we went off to Locke Ober's, which was the most expensive restaurant there.
NNAMDISo you weren't surprised when later on the chief of staff came up in a corruption investigation.
LENZNERNo, I frankly wasn't. I was stunned as a naive college student to be present during all of these transactions. But, no, I was not surprised. And I was about to prosecute Salvatore Bonanno of the organized crime family and I just overheard this conversation saying we're about to invite McCormack's former chief aide. I thought, oh my god.
NNAMDIAnd that was that $100 bill that dropped out of that envelope. It took you right back there. But let's go back down South. You grew up in New York, went to private schools, Harvard, Harvard Law. What preconceptions did you have about the South before you began your assignment with the Civil Rights Division?
LENZNERGreat question. Really great question. Because I sort of had an image of the South from movies. That's about the best answer I could tell you. And so I was looking for the trees and, you know, people with dresses on walking around. And I was abruptly changed as soon as I got down to Philadelphia, Mississippi, which was unique even in Mississippi.
NNAMDIYou also helped to run the grand jury that investigated the bloody Sunday beatings that took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the beatings that nearly took the life of now Congressman John Lewis, who later testified in the case. You sought out other witnesses to testify, including a woman who essentially had all her teeth knocked out. Yet despite that evidence, despite that photographic evidence and testimony, you did not get a single indictment. What did you learn from that experience about the relationship between our legal system and the racial prejudice that was pervasive in so many of the communities that you were then investigating?
LENZNERWell, I learned that it was going to be impossible to gather any effective deterrent against white law enforcement officials anywhere in the South because the members of the grand jury in this case and the members of juries in other cases were simply not going to allow that to happen. I indicted a highway patrolman who had assaulted three civil rights workers in this northern part of Mississippi. And the jury was out 12 minutes before they came back and acquitted.
LENZNERWhich proved John Doar's (sp?) strategy was exactly right and my strategy of going after the bad guys in these offices was completely wrong. It was a waste of time and money. We had to get the vote to these African Americans in Mississippi so they could have the power of politics as well as white people did.
NNAMDIIt's also my understanding that you learned during that time that the FBI was wiretapping Martin Luther King. How did you learn that and how did it affect you when you did learn it?
LENZNERWell, I learned it, I was standing outside the Brown Chapel in Selma, which is where the marches used to depart from. And I was there to make sure that everything was calm and collected when the next march occurred. These were prior to the eventual march to Montgomery, which we got the judge to order later. But that's another story.
LENZNERAnd I was standing there and an FBI agent who was kind of bored -- I had met him before -- came up to talk to me and he said, you know, this guy Dr. King is a bad guy. I won't use what he said exactly.
NNAMDIYes, this is a family show, yes.
LENZNERAnd I said, who you talking about? Because I thought he had gotten the name wrong. And he said, Dr. Martin Luther King. And I said, you think -- you're saying Dr. King is a bad guy? How do you know that? And he said, well I've heard the tapes. I said, you've heard the tapes -- again, by the way, I was eight months out of law school -- you've heard the tapes and the government was taping Dr. Martin Luther King? Oh yeah, he's really a bad guy and we found all this stuff and we heard all these stories about him. And, you know, you shouldn't believe anything you hear about him.
LENZNERAnd I said, I'm stunned. I was. And so the next time I got back to Washington, I wrote -- I hand typed out a note to Mr. George Undur (sp?) who was the head of the Civil Rights Division saying, here's what this guy told me and I'm stunned. Do I -- what should I do? And so about ten minutes later -- and this was, Kojo, unprecedented -- the head of the Civil Rights Division came down and knocked on my door in my little office and said, come out here in the hallway. And I did. And he said, I'm giving this back to you. Do whatever you want with it.
LENZNERAnd I knew what that meant, which was destroy it. So I didn't destroy it, but I kept it as a souvenir.
NNAMDIYou have it to this day?
LENZNERI have it to this day in an envelope, the same envelope I put it in at that point.
NNAMDII'm glad you raised that issue because -- put on your headphones, please -- we have a caller, Carol in Baltimore, Md. who has a question that I think will strike a responsive chord with you about issues like that. Carol, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROLHi, thank you. My heart goes out to you. Oh, I was in the civil rights movement with SNCC and all that in the early '60s. And I know the violence. We were arrested over and over on the eastern shore. It was horrible and was terrifying too. But I have a question. All these 50 years, you must've had death threats and stuff. How did you emotionally handle it?
LENZNERTalking to me or you?
NNAMDIHow did you emotionally handle the kinds of environment in which you were operating? She talked about death threats and the like. I'm sure you've had your share of those.
LENZNERWell, I have never had a death threat, although I've had evidence that people may have been following me. And that may have created some potential damage -- danger. But I -- to be candid, I was so ignorant of what was going on down in the South that it never occurred to me that I could be injured or damaged, because I was a Harvard football player after all, who could harm a football player? And I was stupid about that. I mean, that was really not an intelligent way to operate down there.
LENZNERAnd when I'd go to hotels or motels and they'd put me in a room that was right on a highway with a big plate glass window, I began to put -- take the mattress off the bed and put it up against the window and sleep on the floor below the mattress. And I began to become concerned about that, particularly when the day after the March to Montgomery, Mrs. Liuzzo was shot, gunned coming back to Selma. And I had just been on the road going back to Selma just before that took place.
LENZNERAnd I was also on the road when James Meredith was marching from Tennessee to Jackson for the Voting Rights Act -- for voting rights. And he got shot gunned on that highway. And I began to realize, if I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time in the South that could be a problem.
NNAMDIAnd thus Terry Lenzner began to truly understand the South. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Carol, thank you very much for your call. 800-433-8850. Do you think an investigation like the congressional probe of Richard Nixon during Watergate could take place in a fair transparent today? Give us a call. Tell us why you think it could be or cannot be, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDITerry Lenzner is founder and chairman of Investigative Group International. He's the author of the book "The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth." A New York Times reporter once wrote of you that you're not interested in ideals. You're interested in facts. What would you say to that?
LENZNERThat's correct. That is a correct judgment on my personality and my priorities, that I'm not interested in personalities. I'm interested in getting facts, evaluating them for people, doing what we can to correct whatever the situations are that need correcting. And helping people to move on to their lives, whether it be in the civil rights world or a world in U.S. corporate entities.
NNAMDILet's talk about the Watergate investigation for a while. Because when you served President Nixon a subpoena as a lawyer for the Senate Committee investigating the case, it was the first time a sitting president had ever been handed a congressional subpoena. You argue that Watergate actually began with a loan that Howard Hughes made to Nixon's brother Don. What -- well, tell us about that.
LENZNERWell, in the -- I can't -- the dates were sometime in the '60s that Howard Hughes was interested in getting influence in Washington. And so he was providing cash payments to different couriers for him. And one of them was a loan to Donald Nixon to start the Nixon Burger...
NNAMDIHe had a hamburger operation?
LENZNER...hamburger chain. It was a hamburger chain, which didn't succeed.
NNAMDINo wonder I don't know about that. I know about Donald Nixon but I didn't know about the Donald Nixon hamburgers.
LENZNERWell, that's important. And so that became the first potential embarrassment for the president in that kind of a situation, which was receiving funds without disclosing them. And indeed in his early elections -- two of his earliest elections, the Democratic Party had identified those events and had used -- distributed them and had used them as powerful weapons against the -- Nixon's reelections to two different things, including the vice-presidency.
LENZNERAnd I think my theory was that since then Hughes was a concern of his because this had happened twice. And now we have another recent several hundred thousand dollars of $100 bills that went to Bebe Rebozo, the president's best friend to enhance the Key Biscayne properties that the president held. And he must've been worried about that coming out because if that had come out before the election, it would've been totally devastating for him.
NNAMDISo one of the reasons that Watergate happened was the president's desire not to have disclosed more loans that had come from Howard Hughes.
LENZNERExactly. And that's my position for sure. And there's plenty of evidence to support that, Kojo.
NNAMDIAs you say, you were only interested in facts. You also argue that an investigation like Watergate could not happen in today's political environment, that there was only truth back then, one of a set of facts. How does that stand in contrast to say the Ken Starr investigation of then President Bill Clinton or the rapid fire launch of subpoenas someone like Darrell Issa likes to fire from his congressional committee every week?
LENZNERWell, the Clinton comparison is easy, frankly. Just to give you a background on our committee. Our committee was made up of statesmen for the first part. So we had Senator Ervin, Senator...
NNAMDISenator Sam Ervin, yes.
LENZNERSam Ervin. And Senator Baker.
LENZNERHoward Baker. Senator Weicker from Connecticut.
LENZNERLowell Weicker. Senator Inouye from Hawaii. These people were senior statesmen who understand the importance of maintaining stability in the country and in the government, which I contend. So every decision that was taken from the subpoena I wrote to the -- that I served on the President to all the other requests for information were voted unanimously on a nonpartisan basis. And while we had discussions and disputes about whether or not we should take certain actions by subpoena, ultimately, every decision was reached unanimously and I got nothing but support from both the Republicans and Democrats side, and we made an effort when we discovered what appeared to be a taping system.
LENZNERAnd the Republican investigator had actually identified it in more complete detail. We had him testify to the world, to the country, that we had discovered a taping system in the White House, but it was a Republican who identified it and testified to it. And so we wanted to show that this was a nonpartisan, bipartisan effort.
NNAMDIAnd as someone who watched those hearings, I and others were struck by the clear nonpartisanship, the clear impartiality of everybody who participated in it. As I recall, Senator Sam Ervin became widely popular, and the career of the Republican Senator Howard Baker was boosted as a result of his participation in that process. Now, why couldn't the same thing happen today?
LENZNERWell, because the same kinds of personalities and statesmanship doesn't seem to be present in the Congress in either House or Senate. And I hate to say that, but I believe it to be true, and if I was investigating it, that would be my factual conclusion, that the various individuals are more partisan in nature, and their primary roles in their minds is to get reelected.
NNAMDIThe Ken Starr investigation of then President Bill Clinton, completely different?
LENZNERCompletely different. That was a parody as far as I'm concerned. As an investigator for years and years and years, that was a parody, almost a circus from my standpoint. They made every possible mistake they could make as investigators. They decided what the end result of the investigation was going to be before they began the investigation, and that result that they assume was going to occur was that the Congress of the United States would impeach the president for his dalliance with an intern in the White House, and the fact that he misstated or lied to questions that were asked him.
LENZNERBut just on the basis -- on the core of the allegation, that was not an impeachable offense. That was something that was a -- unfortunately a mistake and not excusable, but it was still not -- did not reach the level of impeachable offense.
NNAMDIAnd you argue that by essentially going down the Monica Lewinsky track, if you will, they may have missed much more important information, critical of the president.
LENZNERNo. I have no question in my mind. We did two investigations for the Democratic side. One was of the Legal Defense Fund that the president had established, and the other was the Democratic National Committee provision of different donors, contributions, and there were a series of questions about the DNC investigation and whether there were foreign contributions made, which is illegal.
LENZNERAnd in the Legal Defense Fund, I know for a fact that we got the president to return $70,000 that had been contributed to him, and we -- that was sent back to the people who provided it, and I'm convinced that they opened their envelopes when that appeared in their mailboxes and said, this is Christmas. I just got a check for X amount of money, and I don't know why they're sending it to me. So had the Starr people looked at more reasonably and carefully at following the money instead of following the girl, they would have a much more successful outcome from their standpoint.
NNAMDIOur guest is Terry Lenzner, founder and chairman of Investigative Group International. He's the author of the book, "The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth." What do you say to someone who says, but wait a minute, isn't Terry Lenzner the guy credited with pioneering the modern practice of opposition research in our politics? Isn't that kind of research done essentially for the purpose of arming political candidates with their own facts to fight political battles? Doesn't that contribute to some of the poisonous environment of today's politics? How would you respond?
LENZNERWell, I would agree with that description, frankly. That's exactly what we've done for both parties. So we've tried to stay either neutral or at least nonpartisan, but I would argue that when an election is taking place, the public has a right to know the accuracy and totality of factual information that might be relevant to their judgment when they're voting. And I use that model also when there's a hostile takeover and we're investigating in a corporate environment whether the rater has acted properly so that the shareholders can get a fair shake at looking at the goods and bads of the rater as well as knowing full well from the disclosures by their company itself whether or not how that measures up against what the raters look like.
NNAMDITo what degree do you feel our news media contribute to what you feel is our collective inability to allow an effective fact-based investigation to go forward in our politics today? Media strategy is clearly a part of how investigations are conducted and how they are sometimes survived by those involved.
LENZNERWell, I've been through that when I did the Clinton work, and the investigations, when they get into that environment where there's partisanship so rampant that the investigation can't get off the ground because there's so much influence from the different parties that it become stifled by the conflicts from the different political positions.
NNAMDIAnd that's because of the increased partisanship that everyone wants to have their own facts?
LENZNERAbsolutely. And I think the media has to take some blame for this because during some of the investigations I've conducted, they've issued information that's completely incorrect. They've identified people that allegedly work for me that didn't, and I think that there's been a lot of sloppiness in the media's attacks on some of these areas, and that's another issue that defines and dumbs down the -- frankly, the efforts of an investigator who wants to get the facts.
NNAMDII was intrigued by something you said to the Washington Post in a profile the newspaper did of you that was published last week. You've taken a fair amount of criticism for work your firm did to investigate the whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand whose defection from a tobacco farm was famously depicted in the film, "The Insider." You told the Post that you were asked by Wigand's former firm to conduct the kind of research your firm does all the time, but that if you had the full context of the firm's goals, you might have reconsidered taking their assignment. What did you mean by that?
LENZNERWell, what I was given, which is not unusual, is we've been asked by a client to do a profile of an individual. That happens, I don't know, ten times a day. It's usually due diligence. It's somebody that somebody's looking to hire, or somebody's -- or a company that's looking for a partnership or an acquisition, and when I was told there was an individual that we had been asked to do a profile research on, it was a perfectly normal request.
LENZNERHad I -- going back to the other issue, Kojo, had I known that it was a profile of an individual who was alleging to be a whistleblower, I certainly would have taken second look at it to say let's be careful because we don't want to interfere with a whistleblower who may be representing the government or maybe doing other things that we don't want to impinge on or damage. So that information didn't come to me until much, much later, well after we were unable to make any changes in our posture.
NNAMDIWhat does it take for you to say no to a potential client?
LENZNERWell, first of all, what would make me say no is, I can't -- if the client won't tell me what he or she will do with the information that we will provide them because that's a red flag. And my biggest nightmare would be the information is used for extortion purposes. It's sensitive information that the client misuses for his own financial or political benefit, and that's a no-no for me, from my standpoint. That would be definitely a no.
NNAMDIFinally, how would you say the proliferation of so much information in the Internet era has changed your work? People now leave behind long digital trails, but information available online also has changed the nation of how reputations are developed these days.
LENZNERYes. And as this thing developed, Kojo, and got into bigger and bigger access areas for information, I began to worry that privacy for individuals was becoming damaged and diminished. And the amount of information that we were getting on our database reports was so voluminous that it really was worrisome. Now, it wasn't going inside the house, it certainly wasn't what the NSA has apparently been doing, but it seemed to me that it was information that if it was sought, it ought to be sought with some official legal review of it before you just push a button and get the information.
LENZNERAnd the other thing that worries me, Kojo, frankly, is if we get to a point where we're getting so much information that people just hit the button and don't ask is that corroborated, is that fact that you've just given supported by corroboration, by an effort to make sure that the information is fact correct and it's not coming from a source that's got some other motive. And so that's -- what we do is we very carefully corroborate any information that we get out a computer because it could be trash. It could be trash in, trash out, and that's something we need to avoid...
NNAMDIThe fact that the information is so easily available should make you, if not suspicious, at least wary of that information.
LENZNEREven more wary than you might ordinarily be.
NNAMDITerry Lenzner is founder and chairman of Investigative Group International. He's the author of "The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth." There's a whole lot there. Thank you so much for joining us.
LENZNERThank you, Kojo, for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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