By Diane Roberts
Untold numbers of Florida politicians spent their careers in fear of Lucy Morgan. Lobbyists and cops, too.
As they should have, especially if they were lying or on the take or abusing positions of power or groping female employees — which they too often were.
Jack Latvala, a Republican former senator from Pinellas County, once hollered at Lucy, “I would rather have an enema than be interviewed by you!”
Another time, when a lawmaker tried to evade her questions, Lucy followed him into the gents.
I remember sitting in a Rules Committee meeting sometime in the late 1980s when Lucy, then capital bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, sailed in. The atmosphere shifted. She smiled sweetly at the legislators sitting up on the dais, but some of them suddenly had a hunted look in their eyes.
If you were supposed to be a public servant but you served no one but yourself, Lucy Morgan would find you out and take you down.
Now Lucy has died at the age of 82. Those of us who worked with her, or for her, or just hung out at her house drinking copious amounts of good red wine, cannot get our heads wrapped around this.
Lucy, tough, funny, stiletto-sharp Lucy, Lucy the Hall of Famer, Pulitzer-winner, dogged investigator, epic badass, would surely live forever.
That’s not, of course, the way the universe works.
She’s left us: her family and her friends and her husband Richard — a great newspaper editor who always said Lucy was the finest reporter he ever worked with — her daughters and her grandchildren and her much-loved cats Johnny and Willie.
The great stories — by her and about her — remain.
There was the time in 1973 when some jumped-up little district attorney in Pasco County demanded she reveal who was feeding her information on local officials’ malfeasance. She refused to tell him.
A judge sentenced her to eight months for contempt. Lucy shrugged. She went to the bookstore and bought the complete poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Figured she’d get a little reading done in jail.
She never got a chance to dig deep into “Idylls of the King:” Her case, fought by the great First Amendment lawyer Sandy D’Alemberte, also now dearly departed, went all the way up to the Florida Supreme Court. They threw out her sentence and affirmed the general right of reporters to protect their sources.
There was the time in 1982 when her reporting on drug smuggling in Taylor and Dixie counties was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Then, for her next trick, she and Times reporter Jack Reed started investigating corruption in the Pasco County sheriff’s office.
The sheriff and his minions tried to intimidate her by having her followed, tapping her phone, and late-night threatening phone calls. They even produced a bumper sticker with her name and, in front of it, an image of what Lucy first took to be a nail. “I finally figured out it was a screw,” she said. “Screw Lucy Morgan.”
She’d cackle gleefully every time she told this story. The Pasco sheriff got booted out in the next election, while she went to New York to collect a Pulitzer Prize.
Lucy spent her childhood in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Her mother divorced Lucy’s alcoholic daddy, raising her and her sister Kay alone. Mother Lucile was adventurous and bright, an opera buff and a tough biscuit. Her daughter inherited the intelligence, the toughness, and the love of opera.
Lucy got pregnant at 17 and married a football coach. “Mother was disappointed,” Lucy would say.
The marriage failed and Lucy found herself marooned in Crystal River with three small children under the age of six. She had no experience as a journalist, but an editor at the Ocala Star Banner, who’d heard from a local librarian that this lady had read more books than anyone she’d ever seen, figured Lucy could handle covering Citrus County.
Boy, could she. In 1967, the St. Pete Times, Florida’s largest newspaper, snapped her up and turned her loose. She described her beat as “roam around Florida and cause trouble.”
She was good at causing trouble.
She castigated Gov. Jeb Bush for failing to follow Florida’s Sunshine Laws: “This new governor requires a little educating.”
Bush, stung by her often-critical stories fueled by deep background sources within his administration, once complained, “I felt like you put me over your knee and spanked me.”
‘A very democratic reporter’
In the best profile of Lucy anyone’s ever written, her Times colleague Jeff Klinkenberg asked Gov. Bob Graham what he thought of her. Graham, perhaps a tad satirically, told a story about how a Green Bay Packers offensive guard described his coach, the legendarily tough Vince Lombardi: “He said, ‘Coach Lombardi treated all his players democratically. He treated us all like dogs.’ I would say Lucy was a very democratic reporter.”
No higher praise.
You might go to her house for ham, cornbread, and cake and find Graham or Bush or Charlie Crist (as far as I know she only invited one governor at a time) plus legislators, past and present, lobbyists, lawyers, and an assortment of journalists.
The dinners were off the record so everybody could eat, drink, and gossip happily. If one of the cats escaped, everybody went out in the yard in the dark, chasing the fugitive feline.
Lucy could not abide was disrespect to animals.
As the GOP nominee for governor, Rick Scott made a big deal out of adopting a Labrador retriever rescue named Reagan. But by the time Scott moved into the mansion, the dog had disappeared, and no one in his office would say what happened to him.
This did not sit well with Lucy. Exasperated by the evasions, she finally asked one of Scott’s flunkies if he had killed the dog.
They could have saved themselves a lot of embarrassment by just admitting Scott had sent Reagan back whence he came. The governor claimed it was because Reagan scared a kitchen worker and barked.
Lucy was always on the side of the underdog.
Nor could she abide the way women were treated by the not-so good old boys who still run this state.
The Gulf County sheriff forced incarcerated women to give him oral sex. When a prosecutor assigned to the case didn’t think it was a big deal, some officers tipped Lucy off.
The sheriff got four years in federal prison.
Causing trouble — for the powerful, at least — was her job. She mentored generations of journalists at the Times, a paper which has always been a kind of incubator for young talent, people who’ve gone onto Politico, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.
Peter Wallsten, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations editor at the Washington Post, says, “Those of us fortunate enough to be initiated as lifetime members of the Lucy Morgan Alumni Club learned to be aggressive, probing, curious, tough, open to all points of view and, above all, fair.”
Wallsten recalls that Lucy “plucked me from the Clearwater office of the St Petersburg Times” to cover the legislative session. He was 23 years old, the “token male” in the Tallahassee Bureau.
Lucy loved all her reporters, but her “girls,” as she called us, were special to her.
I was honored to be included, especially since I wasn’t actually a reporter at the Times, I was on the editorial board. But Lucy helped me get the job, as she informed me: “I said, ‘hire D.K.; she’s a bitch.’”
You have to understand that “bitch” in LucySpeak was a term of endearment, even respect.
When Lucy started out, female reporters were usually confined to the food and style pages. She was the machete clearing the trail for many women in Florida, not the first pioneering newspaperwoman but surely the most significant.
She saw other women not as competition but company. Anita Kumar, senior managing editor at Politico, valued Lucy’s lessons and friendship even more than her mentorship. As Kumar posted on Facebook, “Getting to hear her retell history firsthand while drinking wine on her porch or doing puzzles in our PJs.”
Lucy taught her girls — and any other journalist lucky enough to be in her orbit — that you don’t go for the petty, “gotcha” stuff.
“You don’t want to shoot rubber bands,” she’d say. “When the time comes, you want a loaded gun.”
‘Ain’t you retired?’
Lucy retired in 2006. Or so she claimed. It didn’t look like a normal person’s retirement. She didn’t downsize or take up pickleball. She continued to coddle cats and terrorize politicians.
She’d show up at Associated Industries of Florida’s pre-session party, an almighty carouse full of top-shelf lobbyists drinking top-shelf booze, eating Gulf shrimp and steak sliders, handing lawmakers discrete little envelopes with campaign contributions — once the session started, members couldn’t legally accept money.
When powerful interest groups want favors from legislators, there’s always something dodgy going on. Lucy knew it. The men in suits knew she knew it.
I once heard an indignant senator say to Lucy, “Ain’t you retired?”
In 2010, somebody slipped millions of dollars for a new courthouse to accommodate the First District Court of Appeals into a random transportation bill. Lucy discovered that the grossly-extravagant building — called the “Taj Mahal” — was to have African mahogany fittings, marble, lavish robing rooms, and enormous flat screen televisions on practically every wall.
In 2013, she retired again. For real, she said.
Almost as soon as she said that, she broke a story on a mortgage fraud scheme. The perps got convicted of a $50 million bank fraud. She got a scoop about sexual harassment at FSU’s Askew School. She kept digging. She kept asking questions. She kept writing.
Those of us lucky enough to have been around her will mourn her, miss her, and never forget.
And hope to produce work she’d be proud of.
Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books.