Terry F. Lenzner, a bulldog investigator with a Harvard pedigree whose career took him from pursuing civil rights violators in the South through the Watergate hearings and decades of sometimes controversial private investigations, died on Thursday in Washington. He was 80.
His daughter, Emily Lenzner, confirmed the death, saying he had pneumonia, leukemia and dementia.
In 1964, after an uninspiring stint with a major law firm, Mr. Lenzner took a partner’s suggestion and applied for a job in the civil rights division at the Department of Justice. He was hired and sent to the South, where he helped investigate the murders of the civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and helped manage the grand jury inquiry into the beatings of protesters on what came to be called “Bloody Sunday” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
He learned to sleep on the floor in Southern hotels, with the mattress propped up against the window in case anyone decided to take a shot at him in the night.
As that job ended, Mr. Doar gave him some advice that Mr. Lenzner found startling: Get a job in Richard M. Nixon’s administration. In his memoir, “The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth” (2013), Mr. Lenzner recalled: “The new president was anathema to almost everyone I knew. I wasn’t much of a fan myself.”
“Terry, do what I do,” he recalled Mr. Doar saying. “Zig when others zag.”
Mr. Lenzner joined the staff of Donald H. Rumsfeld in the Office of Economic Opportunity, which had been a tent pole of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Mr. Rumsfeld put Mr. Lenzner in charge of the Legal Services Program, which provided free representation for the poor. The program’s dockets under Mr. Lenzner included lawsuits against public officials, which was not prohibited under the program’s rules but angered governors like Ronald Reagan of California; after 18 months, Mr. Rumsfeld fired Mr. Lenzner and his deputy, Frank N. Jones.
Mr. Lenzner soon went from working for Nixon to investigating him as assistant chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. His experience as an investigator and prosecutor made him “the straw that stirred the drink at the Watergate committee,” Marc Lackritz, who was assistant majority counsel, said in a phone interview. “We’d follow him anywhere.”
Mr. Lenzner, with a colleague, delivered subpoenas to Nixon administration officials demanding documents and the tapes that the president had secretly recorded. The revelations in the tapes led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 before an impeachment vote could be held.
After government service, Mr. Lenzner practiced law for a while before deciding to focus on investigative work. “He relished the opportunity to uncover facts that powerful interests didn’t want uncovered,” his son Jonathan said. “He had no problem ruffling feathers.”
Jim Mintz, with whom Mr. Lenzner founded the firm Investigative Group International, said in a phone interview that Mr. Lenzner had “pioneered a new kind of investigation.” The field had traditionally used people from law enforcement to focus on narrow questions; Mr. Lenzner enlisted lawyers, former news reporters, forensic accountants and others.
The firm found corruption in the multibillion-dollar cost overruns on the Alaska pipeline and built dossiers that could be used as ammunition in high-stakes corporate takeover battles. It uncovered self-dealing at the United Way in the early 1990s, leading to the indictment of its president, William Aramony. Hired by Donald Trump’s first wife, Ivana Trump, it investigated Mr. Trump’s affair with Marla Maples and his finances. And it looked into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, for Mohamed al-Fayed, whose son had Dodi died in the accident that killed her.
But some of the work Mr. Lenzner took on tarnished his reputation. The Wall Street Journal published an article in February 1996 about a leaked copy of a 500-page dossier on the tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand that Mr. Lenzner’s firm had compiled for the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation. The memo made Mr. Wigand appear to be dishonest and a shoplifter, but much of the information was unsubstantiated or proved to be untrue.
The revelation that Mr. Lenzner had helped the tobacco industry with a smear shook friends and admirers. He told The Washington Post that the initial Brown & Williamson request had “appeared to be legitimate,” though he added, “If I had had the full context of the client’s goals, I might well have reconsidered undertaking the assignment.”
His company also earned public scorn for paying a building’s janitor to give it Microsoft’s discarded trash in a fight with a client, the computer technology company Oracle.
Mr. Lenzner did opposition research for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and continued to work for Mr. Clinton through his presidency, including investigating a sexual misconduct lawsuit brought by Paula Jones. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the independent counsel Kenneth Starr called him to testify before a grand jury over his work for Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Lenzner retired in 2015, and his son Jon took over the investigation firm until becoming first assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland in 2018. The firm is currently run by Tom Wendel and Arun Rao.
Terry Falk Lenzner was born in Manhattan on Aug. 10, 1939, to Joseph and Eleanor (Falk) Lenzner. His father was a dentist whose parents had come to the United States from Lithuania; his mother was a homemaker. Joseph Lenzner had played football for the University of Pennsylvania.
Terry Lenzner attended Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard College and Harvard Law School and was captain of both Exeter’s and Harvard’s football teams.
In 1969 he married Margaret Rood, who had worked with him in the Justice Department’s civil rights division. She survives him. In addition to her, his son Jon and his daughter, Emily, he is survived by another son, William; four grandchildren; and an older brother, Robert.
One of his defining moments, Mr. Lenzner recalled in his book, was a childhood illness. After playing football poorly one day in seventh grade, he showed his demanding and unpredictable father his swollen ankles, saying they had slowed him down. His father “kicked my legs, furious at the excuse,” he wrote. It was rheumatic fever, and bedridden months lay ahead. As he recovered, he said, “I felt there was a clock ticking, telling me I had to move forward before time ran out.
“I guess I still haven’t slowed down.”