Lucy Morgan, a pioneering Tampa Bay Times journalist whose relentless investigative reporting kept Florida legislators, lobbyists and lawmen on watch for nearly five decades, died Wednesday, according to family members.
The cause of death was complications from a fall in May. She was 82.
Morgan was renowned for her work from Tampa Bay to Tallahassee, where the press gallery of the Florida State Senate is named in her honor. In 1985, she won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for exposing corruption within the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
“She was as powerful as any politician in the state,” said Richard Bockman, one of her editors at the Times. “She had the ear of anybody in the state who she wanted, from governors to prisoners, from drug dealers to prosecutors. She had anybody and everybody. And her goal was to tell stories that needed to be told.”
Former Gov. Jeb Bush praised Morgan’s fearless approach to covering Tallahassee.
“Lucy was the gold standard as a journalist,” Bush said in a statement. “She was tough but fair. She was tenacious. I think she scared politicians that were ethically challenged because they knew nothing would get by her. More importantly for me, Lucy was a friend. Prayers for her family.”
Long before she became the Times’ Tallahassee bureau chief — a role she held for 20 years — Morgan fell into journalism by accident. The way she told it, she was pregnant and married at 17, and divorced with three kids a decade later, when an editor with the Ocala Star-Banner tracked her down and asked if she’d be willing to cover Citrus County part-time, earning 20 cents per word. She agreed.
Three years later, in 1967, she joined the staff of the St. Petersburg Times. And six years after that, while investigating corruption in Dade City, a judge sentenced her to a total of eight months in jail for refusing to name a source. Though she never served time, she regretted the notoriety the case brought her and the paper. But she said it did lead more people to trust her with sensitive information.
In a 2005 profile, former Times writer Jeff Klinkenberg recounted how so many of Florida’s mostly male leaders got in trouble simply because they failed to see past Morgan’s penchant for knitting and bless-your-heart Mississippi drawl.
“I have always liked to be underestimated,” Morgan said then. “To be a Southern woman in a Capitol full of good old boys is an advantage. When they find out I’m serious, it’s too late.”
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She’d ask leaders like Bush over for dinner, Bockman said, and they’d come, because “it was almost seen as, you had made it in Tallahassee if Lucy invited you out to her house and cooked dinner for you.” More than once, Bockman shadowed Morgan as she worked the halls of the Capitol, amazed at her access and influence.
“It was like nothing I’d ever seen,” Bockman said. “She’d go into legislators’ offices and flop down on the sofa, put her feet up, and just say, ‘All right, talk to me.’ And they’d talk.”
It wasn’t just power brokers. Morgan could get almost anyone to drop their guard or find her with a scoop.
“She really liked to needle lobbyists, or people doing the spin, and she was tough enough to say, ‘Bulls--t. Why are you lying to me?’” Klinkenberg said. “But she also had this ability to talk to anybody, which I always thought, that’s a great talent. A janitor might end up being a source.”
One example of many: Morgan was once asked to speak to a group of recruits at the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, and said if anyone ever wanted to share anything about the department, good or bad, she’d listen. A couple of days later, a high-ranking officer who happened to be in the audience showed up at her house and started talking about problems under Sheriff John Short.
Morgan and fellow reporter Jack Reed began a yearlong investigation relying on Deep Throat levels of secrecy, with the officer’s wife slipping confidential documents to Morgan under the door of a department store dressing room. The sheriff’s office fought the investigation the whole way, sifting through Morgan’s trash and passing out bumper stickers with a picture of a screw next to her name: “Screw Lucy Morgan.” In the end, Short was removed from office and indicted on corruption charges, and Morgan and Reed won a Pulitzer.
Her investigations reverberated throughout the state. There was her 1982 examination of the culture of corruption surrounding a thriving drug smuggling industry in Dixie County. That one didn’t win a Pulitzer, but it was a finalist.
There was the series of articles she wrote in 1994 tracking an investigation into a Gulf County sheriff accused of sexually assaulting more than 20 employees and inmates. When a federal judge found the sheriff guilty, Morgan received a dozen roses with a note: “From the women you believed.”
There was the 2010 blockbuster about appellate judges and lawmakers slipping funding for a $50 million “Taj Mahal” of a courthouse deep into an entirely unrelated transportation bill. That led to a state audit, new rules about future courthouse projects, and one judge’s resignation.
The subjects of Morgan’s stories would tail her car, tap her phone, even flash firearms to try to throw her off track. But those who feared her pen also respected her. After winning that Pulitzer for investigating Pasco’s sheriff, leading voters to push him out of office, the Florida Sheriffs Association asked her to speak to a group of new sheriffs about how they ought to do their jobs.
“I told them I had mixed emotions because it might cut the number of really good stories about the bad things they’d do,” she later told Florida Trend, “but I decided to go ahead because most of them would ignore the advice, anyway.”
Throughout her career, Morgan was a mentor to many in the newsroom — but particularly women, helping them navigate both challenging stories and their own career paths. Long after they left the paper and she retired, a group of those women — the “Wayward Girls,” she called them — would meet annually to catch up.
“It’s hard to be fearless as a reporter, and it’s hard to be fearless as a woman reporter, and it’s hard to be fearless as a woman reporter dealing with men in power,” said one of those women, former Times reporter and editor Molly Moorhead, now an editor at Yahoo! Finance. “If you watched Lucy do her thing, it helped you do your job better.”
Morgan’s first boss at the Times was an exacting Pasco County editor named Richard Morgan. They hit it off and married in 1968, forming a blended family bonded by loss. Both Richard and Lucy lost children young. Lucy’s teenage son Al Ware died in a 1979 auto accident. His death, Lucy would say, gave her new empathy for the families of victims she covered. She has two living children, Kathleen Bauerlin and Andrew Ware. Together with Richard, their blended family grew to include nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Lucy and Richard split their time between homes in Tallahassee and western North Carolina. Even up there, she couldn’t shut off her nose for news. One time at a beauty salon, she overheard a story about a New York mobster with Florida ties who was involved in some land scam in the mountains. She started looking into it. Her investigation turned up a $50 million interstate mortgage scheme that led to federal prison sentences for seven Floridians, including two from Hillsborough County.
Morgan received countless honors and awards outside her Pulitzer, including induction into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. She also sat on the board of the Times Publishing Company, where during meetings, former chairman Paul Tash said, she would knit scarves and Christmas stockings for colleagues’ kids.
“She really did have a great personal touch,” Tash said. “She could write some really tough stories about people, but still maintain a good connection with them, because it was always straight and fair. She had a wonderful capacity to hate the sin but love the sinner.”
In 2017, the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation named an award after her: The Lucy Morgan Award for Open Government Reporting, given to Florida journalists who use public records to expose government corruption.
When she retired for a second time in 2013, Morgan penned a memo extolling her fondness for exploring the “dark corners” of “this crazy state we covered.
“Where else can you find public officials who behave so badly, write about them and force them to do the right thing?” she wrote. “I almost feel guilty for collecting a paycheck all these years.