Clinton's detective has high-profile past Terry F. Lenzner, ex-federal lawyer, now top hired sleuth

February 28, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's private eye is no trench-coat-toting gumshoe with his feet propped on a cluttered desk and a whiskey bottle in his bottom drawer.

No, Terry F. Lenzner, the aggressive lawyer-turned-sleuth who was hauled before a grand jury this week by the Whitewater independent counsel, heads one of the nation's top investigative outfits. It's a firm that has held up its magnifying glass for Fortune 500 companies, Mike Tyson, political candidates of all -- stripes, and now, the embattled Clinton White House.

Though he will not disclose the nature of the work he is doing for Clinton, Lenzner, 58, acknowledged this week that his Washington firm, Investigative Group International, had been retained by Williams & Connolly, the law firm representing the president in the Monica Lewinsky matter.

Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel, subpoenaed Lenzner to appear before the grand jury this week. Starr reportedly suspects that Lenzner's group was asked to dig up derogatory information on members of the prosecutor's legal team as a way to discredit the investigation ofthe president. Such an effort, the independent counsel asserts, could amount to impeding his investigation and thus to obstruction of justice.

Earlier this week, Lenzner, who tried unsuccessfully to avoid a grand jury appearance by claiming attorney-client privilege, said there was "nothing inappropriate" about any work his firm might be doing for Clinton.

Still, if Starr's critics call the independent counsel Clinton's private inquisitor, Clinton's critics call Lenzner the president's private CIA. In his column this week in the New York Times, William Safire said Lenzner "sank" to his current job as a "notorious snoop-for-hire" from a career as a high-level government lawyer.

Despite occasional work for Republicans, Lenzner has long-standing Democratic ties and is a friend of Mickey Kantor, a Clinton lawyer and confidant.

A number of current and former IGI employees have links to the Clinton administration. IGI alumni include, for example, Clinton aide Ricki Seidman; Brooke Shearer, an Interior Department official; and Raymond W. Kelly, undersecretary of the Treasury. Lenzner's attorney, Howard Shapiro, was until last summer general counsel to the FBI.

Lenzner was first hired by Clinton's private lawyers in 1994 to investigate who was financing Paula Jones' sexual misconduct lawsuit against the president.

Soon afterward, Lenzner's firm received a no-bid grant of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the State Department, the Associated Press reported yesterday. The grant sent Kelly, a former New York City police chief who was then IGI's president, to Haiti to train police and supervise international police monitoring after a military crisis there in 1994.

State Department officials said that the grant was not subject to competitive bidding because of the urgency of sending a top lawman to Haiti to supervise the transition of power, the AP said.

Last year, the Democratic National Committee used IGI to audit political contributions.

Similarly, when the White House became suspicious two years ago about the origin of $640,000 delivered by Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie to Clinton's legal defense fund, it asked IGI to investigate.

At about the same time, Lenzner was approached by an Oklahoma Indian tribe, a big Democratic donor, that wanted him to dig up negative information on Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican who opposed returning some of the tribe's lands.

The tribe ultimately turned down Lenzner's proposed investigation, but Nickles and other senators attacked Lenzner's tactics, calling them, as Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut said, an "intrusion into the system."

Lenzner has defended "opposition research" -- the technical term for digging up dirt on adversaries -- that his firm has conducted for such candidates as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Robert Monks, a Republican Senate candidate from Maine. For Monks, Lenzner investigated rumors that a GOP rival had sexually assaulted a teen-age baby sitter, sparking a scandal that dominated the 1996 race and paved the way for a third Republican candidate, Susan Collins, to ride into the Senate.

The firm was also hired by Mike Tyson during the boxer's appeal of his rape conviction to investigate whether any of the jurors in the case had acted inappropriately.

Testifying last year before the Senate committee investigating campaign fund raising, Lenzner said there was "nothing nefarious" about his research, and, in fact, nothing different from what reporters themselves do all the time.

"It's not cloak and daggers," one former employee said. "The work the firm does is very much a part of good, sound business research practices."

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