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Carl Levin, a liberal Michigan Democrat who served 36 years in the Senate and scared the wits out of America’s biggest CEOs by demanding explanations for shadowy schemes that hid billions in profits overseas and avoided vast corporate taxes at home, died Thursday in Detroit. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by the Levin Center at Wayne State University. Mr. Levin had disclosed in March that he had lung cancer, Jim Townsend, a spokesperson for the family, said.

The longest-serving senator in Michigan history — from 1979 to 2015 — Mr. Levin was regarded by Senate colleagues and Washington observers as a paragon of probity as chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He wielded subpoena power, huge briefing books, a big gavel, and an unquenchable zeal for grilling high-profile witnesses at public hearings.

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Then-Senators Joe Biden and Carl Levin, at a news conference in 2005. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Then-Senators Joe Biden and Carl Levin, at a news conference in 2005. (Doug Mills/The New York Times) DOUG MILLS/NYT

With his longish silver hair, affable smile, and glasses perched low on the nose, he looked more like a kindly Old World shoemaker than the terror of the Senate. But he confronted the titans of JPMorgan Chase, Apple, American Express, and other corporate giants like a barbarian at the gates, and he extracted admissions about overseas banking havens and mind-boggling tax-avoidance maneuvers that rendered profits invisible and made tax burdens vanish into thin air.

“Levin has shown how profits can be shipped tax-free to the Cayman Islands and, amazingly, how Apple figured out that profits booked in Ireland could be hidden from tax authorities of both Ireland and the United States in a cloak of invisibility,” David Cay Johnston wrote in a 2014 essay, “The Legacy of Carl Levin,” in The American Prospect, a liberal quarterly.

Johnston said Mr. Levin showed how Apple escaped $10 billion in taxes every year from 2009 to 2012; how Microsoft siphoned $8 billion to Singapore and Irish subsidiaries and lowered its effective tax rate on the money to 3 percent; and how Goldman Sachs sold clients securities that it later bet would fail, “eliciting eye-opening testimony from its CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, who saw nothing wrong with this.”

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Mr. Levin documented conflicts of interest and other wrongdoing that led to the 2008 financial crisis, which threatened global markets and produced the worst recession since the Great Depression. In 2013, a 300-page report by Mr. Levin’s panel detailed JPMorgan Chase’s $6.2 billion loss fiasco by rogue traders.

“In corporate America, the scariest seat in Washington is the front row of a hearing room where Carl Levin holds the gavel,” Politico reported in 2014. “His retirement next January has executives exhaling.” Reginald Brown, a lawyer who represented several targets of Mr. Levin’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, told Politico: “The first thing I tell people is, PSI stands for ‘pretty scary investigations.’”

Mr. Levin, who was also known for opposing the Iraq War and for advocating tighter controls over handguns and nuclear weapons, was one of his state’s most popular politicians — narrowly elected to the Senate on his first try, but reelected five times by widening margins. He was the Senate’s fourth-longest serving incumbent when he retired at age 80.

He was the most prominent member of a Michigan family that embraced public service. His brother, Sander Levin, a former US representative, was chair of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, and had a congressional career of more than three decades that almost paralleled Carl’s. Other relatives were federal and state judges or held other elective or appointive offices.

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Carl Levin joined a class of 20 freshman senators in 1979 that included Democrats Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, and the Republicans Alan Simpson of Wyoming and William Cohen of Maine. Many hit the ground running. Mr. Levin became floor manager of legislation to implement recently ratified Panama Canal treaties and won a tough fight for more funds for child care.

The liberal Levin and the conservative Simpson found that they shared a passion for baseball, and after a tour of defense installations in San Diego that summer they attended a Padres game together. Midway through the game, the scoreboard lit up: “Let’s give a Big Padres Welcome to Senator Simpson of Wyoming and Senator Levin of Michigan!” The stadium erupted in nonpartisan Bronx cheers.

In 1981, Americans for Democratic Action, a national liberal organization, issued its ratings of senators’ voting records for the previous year. It gave its highest rating, 94 percent, to Levin, and its lowest, 0, to Senator Barry Goldwater, Republican of Arizona.

Mr. Levin’s votes in the Senate over the decades were consistent with that early assessment, except on home-state issues including fuel economy for cars, which he opposed, and bailouts and other measures to aid Detroit’s automotive industries, which he backed enthusiastically.

He supported funds for education and measures for environmental protections and trade regulations that, advocates said, improved public health and created jobs. He sponsored a ban on assault weapons, was rated “F” by the National Rifle Association, and voted to ratify treaties to control nuclear weapons and ban intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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While he had no military experience, Mr. Levin served for 10 years — from 2001 to 2003 and from 2007 to 2015 — as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a platform from which he exerted a major influence on military appropriations and defense policies.

He exposed wasteful and corrupt practices by military contractors, voted to close bases, pushed for less secrecy in government, and was instrumental in lifting the ban on gays in the military.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, he voted to give President George W. Bush authority to go after the perpetrators. But he grew critical of American fighting in Afghanistan and was an early opponent of the Iraq War, voicing skepticism over the administration’s claim that President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He hailed President Obama’s 2011 decision to withdraw US troops from Iraq.

Carl Milton Levin was born in Detroit on June 28, 1934, one of three children of Saul Levin and the former Bess Levinson. His father was a lawyer and member of Michigan’s Correction Commission, which ran state prisons. Public affairs dominated dinner conversations, the father asking Carl, his brother, and sister, Hannah, for opinions on capital punishment, mayoral decisions, and other topics.

Carl graduated from Swarthmore College in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, and from Harvard Law School in 1959.

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He married Barbara Halpern in 1961. They had three daughters, Kate, Laura, and Erica. In addition to his wife, brother, and daughters, Mr. Levin leaves six grandchildren.

After five years practicing law in Detroit, he became an assistant attorney general and general counsel for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 1964 to 1967. He helped form the Detroit Public Defender’s office, and in 1968-69 was its chief appellate defender. He served two terms on the Detroit City Council from 1969 to 1977, the last four years as president. He also became a close associate of Coleman Young, a Democrat who in 1974 became Detroit’s first African American mayor.

Mr. Levin, who lived in Huntington Woods, said in 2013 that he would not seek a seventh term.

“I will miss Carl Levin when he leaves the Senate after the next election — and you will, too,” Joe Nocera wrote in a guest essay in The New York Times. “Levin has done more than anyone to expose the scams, the conflicts, the wrongdoing, and the sheer idiocy of the financial industry from the run-up to the financial crisis to the present day.”