John Morgan: The man behind the medical pot drive
Published: Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 5:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 5:48 p.m.
ORLANDO, Fla. — The worst day of John Morgan's life was when his brother snapped his neck diving into a Walt Disney World lagoon while working as a lifeguard. It left him a quadriplegic.
That day also set Morgan, the man behind Florida's medical marijuana ballot initiative, on a course that would make him a wealthy and locally famous personal injury lawyer.
Morgan, then an undergraduate student, watched as Disney's lawyers successfully fought his brother at every turn. When the case eventually boiled down to a worker's compensation claim, even then the big corporation beat the little guy. Instead of settling, Disney said Tim Morgan could still work as a resort telephone operator on the graveyard shift.
"It was like, 'We've crushed you.' I was so frustrated. I knew what I was going to do," Morgan said — he would get revenge against those who hurt his brother and those like them. "And I've never done anything else."
That's not quite true. Since then he's also wielded a lot of political influence; started an investment firm with retired NBA star Grant Hill; opened a crime museum in Washington, D.C., with "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh; built a string of science-themed attractions called Wonderworks; and spent $4 million to get the medical marijuana proposal on the November ballot — an issue also inspired by his brother Tim, who smokes pot to help control muscle spasms he still suffers from his diving injury.
John Morgan, 58, began Morgan & Morgan in 1988 with three lawyers. It now has 260 lawyers in 23 offices across six states, built in part by being a pioneer among personal injury lawyers who advertise on television and billboards. His ads blanket the state.
Morgan counts presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton among his friends and former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is again running for governor, is an employee. Morgan is a huge political donor who has raised millions of dollars for candidates — usually Democrats, but he's also written checks for Republicans.
And his personality is as big as his law firm. He's charismatic with a sense of humor that's often sprinkled with profanity. He is not shy about his fondness for Tennessee whiskey, but after a 1997 DUI he said doesn't get behind the wheel if he has even a single drink. Instead he has a black limousine and a driver.
Morgan doesn't hide his wealth, but he is generous with it. An Orlando food bank named its distribution center after his firm when he and his wife Ultima donated $2 million to the organization. He hands out large denomination bills when approached by the homeless and helps many others privately.
He has a you-can't-take-it-with-you attitude about his millions. "I've been to a thousand funerals. I've never seen a U-Haul hooked up to a hearse," Morgan, holding a whiskey on the rocks, told the Tampa Bay Young Republicans this spring while talking about the marijuana initiative.
The GOP group took some heat for inviting Morgan to the event. Executive director Lacey Wickline acknowledged that many Republicans don't like Morgan because of his political stances and unapologetic style. But Wickline said Morgan is a huge Florida employer and investor and simply a nice guy who likes to help people.
"He's kind of like Bill Clinton in that he makes you feel like the most important person in the room. He just has that much charisma and I think it's absolutely genuine," she said. "He's worked his butt off. He's built this empire and I just admire that regardless of what we disagree on politically."
Those fighting him on the medical marijuana issue aren't so positive about Morgan.
"He's been very nasty and very unprofessional to the people debating him," said Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation.
Morgan admits when challenged, he fights back hard.
"When somebody comes looking for a fight, I will take out my right hand with an open palm and slap them down to the ground," he said.
Morgan is the oldest of five children born to alcoholic parents. His father had a hard time holding a job and his mother was an angry drunk. He remembers at 14 driving and with no driver's license packing his siblings into a car and checking into a motel to escape her. He said looking back now, it's hard to imagine that was his life.
"We were dealing with the hellcat," he said. "She was one of these that would wake up and just be coming at ya, belligerent as hell, just blind running drunk."
So Morgan spent a lot of his time working.
At 14 he was flipping burgers at a Dairy Queen. He said the job made him feel "sky high" and he liked the feeling of having money in his pocket.
"I was like, 'Give me all the hours you want. I like being at work,'" Morgan said.
In college he worked at Disney as a costumed character, beginning as the "The Jungle Book" orangutan King Louie and later portraying Fiddler Pig and finally Pluto.
"Disney was a safe haven for me," he said. "I would have worked non-stop at Disney if they let me."
And despite his feelings about Disney after his brother's accident, he holds no bitterness for the theme park giant.
"I love Disney World," he said. "When I was a character, the reason it was such a great job is you're dealing with people who are really having one of the very best days they're ever going to have in their whole life and you're a part of it."
And Walt Disney is one of the people who inspired him as he grew his businesses.
"The mantra at Disney was dream and do it, and most people just dream but don't do. The reason that Walt Disney is one of my heroes is that guy did it," Morgan said. "That's kind of how I tick. I like a big project, I like a big challenge."