On Political Books

September/ October 2013 The Incurious Investigator

Why introspection was too dangerous for Washington’s bravest sleuth.

By Jamie Malanowski

For Lenzner, the Watergate hearings closed up before much of the dramatic material he uncovered saw the light of day. Among those revelations was that the CIA had recruited the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro, something that would have to wait until the Church Committee hearings a few years later. The House Judiciary Committee had begun impeachment hearings; Ervin thought the stag was bagged, and closed up shop. He did this without, in Lenzner’s opinion, addressing the great unsolved mystery about Watergate, which is why the burglars broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) on that famous June night in 1972 in the first place. What were they looking for? Lenzner maintains he has the answer: the burglars were trying to find documentary proof that Howard Hughes had given Richard Nixon a $100,000 campaign contribution in cash, which he repaid with government favors. The documents were supposedly in the possession of DNC chairman Larry O’Brien, long a Nixon bête noire. This theory of the crime has been floated before, and as far as I can tell, Lenzner’s account here adds nothing new to the explanation. Lenzner also maintains that the infamous eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in the White House tapes erased the conversation where Nixon personally ordered the break-in, although he offers nothing in the way of proof. What does add credence, though, is the characteristic imperturbability in which Lenzner cloaked himself from the beginning, his demonstrated tendency to play everything close to the vest. Lenzner comes across like the kind of guy who has a wait-and-see attitude about tomorrow’s sunup; if a man like that feels comfortable adopting such conclusions, then they are worth accepting. Right?

Perhaps. After Watergate, Lenzner participated in other famous cases. Eventually he left the law firm in which he was a name partner, and founded Investigative Group International (IGI), a company whose no-frills name is itself an advertisement for a facts-only philosophy. From there, he went on to help solve the Unabomber case, expose crime and corruption, and help famous people in trouble. Among these was Bill Clinton, service in whose cause earned Lenzner his own subpoena to appear in the Starr Chamber. As Lenzner tells it, the unprepared associate prosecutor never laid a glove on him. Lenzner wears this war wound like a crown.

In The Investigator, Lenzner may give us just the facts, but perhaps not all the facts. One famous client that is all but unmentioned in the book is the Brown & Williamson tobacco company. The company hired Lenzner to look for material in the background of Jeffrey Wigand, a former company executive turned whistleblower, who was telling the world that the tobacco companies were lying about the results of tests they had conducted into the danger of cigarettes. Very simply, they wanted Lenzner to impeach Wigand’s credibility. According to the Washington Post,

IGI compiled a massive 500-page file titled “The Misconduct of Jeffrey S. Wigand Available in the Public Record” that amounted to the gleanings of phone records, medical records, typographical errors and police blotter effluvia purporting to portray Wigand as a liar, shoplifter, plagiarist, wife-beater and expense-account cheater, among other categories of malfeasance.

Whatever facts may have been included in the report, the investigation backfired. IGI’s strenuousness became the issue, an example of the lengths to which the tobacco companies were willing to go to thwart Wigand’s allegations. Wigand’s lawyer called the report “a smear campaign”; the Wall Street Journal said that many of the findings were “backed by scant or contradictory evidence” and some were “demonstrably untrue.” William Safire called Lenzner a bully and Frank Rich called him a creep. Lenzner later told Fortune that some facts in the report “were not completely developed.” Meanwhile, Wigand was celebrated. He ended up being profiled in Vanity Fair, and Russell Crowe was nominated for an Oscar for portraying him in Michael Mann’s film The Insider. (The role of “Private Investigator” was played by Douglas McGrath.)

Lenzner refers to this investigation briefly, and one of the two occasions was just to remind Ken Starr’s associate that he and Starr were on Brown & Williamson’s payroll at the same time. No effort is made to discuss the incident, no consideration is given to the criticisms, even to rebut them, and certainly no attempt is made to tie accusations of creep and bully and smear to cross-examinations that made Philip Berrigan wince and left Richard Moore in shreds. And once we realize this, the just the facts, ma’am approach no longer bolsters credibility, because all we can think of is other facts that we may not have been told, and other investigations that didn’t get written about, and other clients whose names will forever remain unmentioned. In The Investigator, a peerless investigator’s examination of a subject he would seem to know peerlessly well cannot be judged thorough enough to be complete.

Investigator, probe thyself.

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.

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