After Decades, Journo Still Covers Fla. Legislature

Seventy-one-year-old journalist Lucy Morgan is an institution in Florida. This was the 46th Florida legislative session Morgan has covered as a reporter. She was the chief of the St. Petersburg Times capitol bureau for 20 years, and now she is an investigative correspondent — semi-retired.

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The state of Florida is having a big year for politics - today's primary of course. In August, Tampa will host the Republican National Convention. And then there's the usual business of Florida's state government, conducted in Tallahassee.

The lawmakers have gathered for their annual session, knowing they'll be watched over once again by 71-year-old veteran journalist Lucy Morgan.

NPR's Noah Adams has this profile.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: A Monday night in Tallahassee, the eve of the new session, an outdoor reception to honor the Florida lawmakers. The alcohol is top shelf, the food sumptuous, the invitation specified business attire. This party is put on every year by a large lobbying association. And there are 2,000 people here - the governor, senators and representatives, lobbyists, and Lucy Morgan from the Tampa Bay Times.

LUCY MORGAN: It's a social occasion the night before session starts. The only business that would be conducted here tonight would be kind of surreptitious. And it would be lobbyists handing checks to legislators who, after tomorrow morning, can no longer collect.

ADAMS: Those checks would be campaign contributions - all legal. The legislators can take the money year-round, just not during the session.

Lucy Morgan has often written about the lobbyists in Tallahassee, about their beach houses and Porsches, the millions they can earn; their power, their deep insider status at the capitol.

MORGAN: The lobbyists are the most fascinating part of it to me. And have always been, in my coverage here, something I've paid major attention to because, first of all, they know more than the legislators do about what's going to happen. They usually know when it's going to happen. And they are the best predictors of exactly what is going to come out on the other end of the legislative train.

ADAMS: On the last day of the 2007 session, a bill was passed that included millions for an ultra-fancy state courthouse in Tallahassee. It was a last-minute addition to a 142-page bill. It did not attract attention.

Then, last year, with the courthouse about to be finished, Lucy Morgan put the story on the front page of her paper. The headline was: Taj Mahal of a Court, Approved Without Legislative Scrutiny. Later the Florida Senate, embarrassed by the courthouse, embarrassed even more by Lucy's follow-up stories, had questions for the judges who had been lobbying for the fancy building.

STATE SENATOR MIKE FASANO: It's been determined that the legislature is totally at fault here for allocating the dollars. But we didn't put the African mahogany in there. We didn't put the granite countertops in there. We didn't decide that there was going to be two robing rooms. Who made those decisions?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The African mahogany...

FASANO: Whom? Please tell us. Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The African mahogany decision was actually made...

ADAMS: The judge trying to get to answer that question has now resigned, avoiding trial on misconduct charges. He has denied wrongdoing.

Lucy Morgan's story had started with a tip. Somebody said, look at the email traffic from the judges about their new building. Soon she was searching through 1,300 messages.

MORGAN: And then I found, buried in the middle of those emails, one email from a judge that said: We got it. It's in House Bill 985 on its way to the governor. It was a lengthy transportation bill. And tacked on to the very end of it was a clause authorizing a $32 million bond issue to help pay for this court house, stuck in the middle of a bill that had nothing to do with courthouses or bond issues.

FLORENCE SNYDER: As we sit here today I'm hard pressed to think of any reporter who can run a story like that other than Lucy Morgan.

ADAMS: That's Florence Snyder, a Tallahassee attorney who writes about media issues. Snyder says the Taj Mahal story was leaked to several news organizations, but Lucy Morgan was the one who had the ferocious, youthful curiosity necessary to take it on.

Morgan is an investigative reporter. She's semi-retired, working half time. Her newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, was until recently called the St. Petersburg Times. For 20 years, she was the capitol bureau chief - she was the boss. And when she left that job they had a party and gave her a quilted wall hanging - looks like newsprint - with words sewn in. And this is how her colleagues described Lucy Morgan. Now every day she can look up from her desk and usually laugh.

MORGAN: Well, let's see: muckraker, ball-buster, force of nature, cat lover, red-wine-please, bitch. Unfortunately most of it's true.

ADAMS: Morgan was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, raised by her mom in a house that was full of music and books. Her sister went off to college at 15 and became a Harvard-trained psychologist. Lucy, at 17, was married. By the time she was 25, she had three children and was settled in Florida in the small town of Crystal River.

MORGAN: I was married to a high school football coach. And like anyone who is married to a coach or teacher, there was never any money

ADAMS: And like any good life story, this one has a knock on the door. April 1965, an editor with the Ocala Star-Banner was standing there. She'd come to ask Lucy if she wanted to be a local correspondent.

MORGAN: And I said, well, I've never written anything. Why would you come to me? And she said, well, the local librarian had told her that I read more books than anybody else in town and, since I read so much, maybe I could write.

ADAMS: She signed on as a stringer earning 20 cents a word. The city commission was on her beat. Those men were accustomed to sometimes telling reporters, y'all don't write this.

MORGAN: And the very first meeting I covered, I got in trouble with all of them because they went into - not a private session, but just some discussion of whether they should fire the police chief and I wrote it. It did not seem to me that you should let something like that go unreported.

ADAMS: Lucy went on to a full-time job with the St. Petersburg Times. She divorced the coach, married the editor, Dick Morgan of the Times.

RICHARD MORGAN: I can tell you, unequivocally, she is the best reporter that I've ever worked with or that I've ever known.

ADAMS: In 1985, Lucy won a Pulitzer Prize for a series on corruption in a sheriff's office and then, in 1986, she moved to Tallahassee to run the newspaper's capitol bureau. She did all this without ever taking a journalism course.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We have prepared - this document - for presentation.

ADAMS: A protest inside the Florida capitol. The young people will make the evening television news. Lucy Morgan walks on past. She moves more slowly on the marble floors these days and with a limp. She fractured an ankle in the House Press Gallery 12 years ago. She takes me along to a back door of the Senate chamber.

MORGAN: Reporters used to stake this hall out all the time. I don't know where they all are now, but there's a bell that rings a couple of times to warn the senators that there's a quorum call.

ADAMS: The senators move past and the lobbyists are also in the hallway. Everybody smiles when they see Lucy, especially the lobbyist Ron Book, said to be the most powerful in the state. And Book knows Lucy is always looking for a story.

RON BOOK: And she has been known to walk over and simply open up my pocket and take the paperwork out of my pocket. You see that I'm holding my notebook closed.

MORGAN: Look, I have made him look so important, he makes millions doing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ADAMS: At day's end, Morgan drives home to the countryside north of town. She likes opera, so it's Pavarotti on the stereo, a glass of wine, and ice for her ankle.

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ADAMS: Lucy and Dick Morgan live only half the year in Tallahassee. In April, they'll escape the coming hot weather by settling into their cabin in the North Carolina mountains. They'll take the computer and she'll watch for that next story to come along.

MORGAN: Dick's 81, I'm 71. I don't know what I'm going to do. As long as it's fun, my health is good enough to do it and I'm interested in doing it, I may do it, but I don't really intend to be doddering around in my 90s doing it.

ADAMS: Noah Adams, NPR News.

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