People think I put mascara on," John Morgan says, standing in a small conference room on the ninth floor of the downtown First Union Bank building, as a woman powders his nose. The room has today been turned into a television-commercial set. His thick eyelashes, Morgan assures, are 100 percent au naturel.
It's a little after 10 a.m., and Morgan has already been here at least a couple of hours. This video shoot will go on all of this day and the next, as Morgan readies to release his next round of now-famous advertisements onto Central Florida's airwaves early next year. The cameras start rolling.
"When we meet clients who've lost a loved one to cancer," Morgan begins, making a slow, deliberate walk across the law-book laden office, "or meet men and women ... ." He stutters over the last word. "She's got that fucked up," he says, pointing out an error on the screen he's reading from.
"I've never read [this ad]," he says, taking a minute to review the text. The commercial's point is that sometimes doctors either misdiagnose cancer ailments or don't order the proper tests -- things that are actionable in court.
As is, Morgan's reading of the lines far exceeds the 30-second limit. He debates with a crew member over what to take out to fit the spot into its time frame. They decide to leave it as is, and Morgan is told to read a bit faster.
On the second try, he finishes in 28 seconds, but he was speaking too fast to be understood. As his face is repowdered, Morgan scans the script again, this time choosing to remove a line the crew decides is repetitious.
On take three, Morgan again stumbles over a word: "Fuck," he mutters.
After three more failed tries, he's becoming a bit agitated. "I'm gonna nail this one," he says. Sensitive to his frustration, the crew quickly readies the cameras.
"When we meet clients who've lost a loved one to cancer," he starts. Like promised, Morgan nails it.
That's the John Morgan most people know. His stern face and monotone voice saturate the state's airwaves, beckoning people to call Morgan, Colling and Gilbert if they or their family members have been in any way wronged. It's a familiar call to arms, if nothing else. Morgan spends $6 million a year on advertising, certainly more than any firm in Florida and possibly, he says, more than any firm in the country. Perhaps that's why last year Morgan was voted among the top five "people we love to hate" in an Orlando Sentinelsurvey.
During the last few years, however, the ads have evolved. What used to be "Have you been injured in an automobile accident?" has morphed into attacks on insurance companies and health-maintenance organizations (HMOs). Sometimes the "call us" tag line is even removed -- if you didn't know the source, the ads would read almost like public-service announcements.
Indeed, Morgan is following a national trend. While popular opinion destroyed a nationalized health-care proposal in the early '90s, Americans are now fed up with what they see as profiteering at the expense of sound medicine.
Still, the insurance business boasts a powerful lobby and influential allies within the Republican Party, thus blocking efforts to create a national Patients' Bill of Rights that would let patients sue HMOs for the denial of services.
That relegates such litigation to state courts and state laws. In Florida, the legislature threw patients' rights groups a bone -- the business-backed, insurance-supported Patient Protection Act of 2000. The bill (originally titled "The HMO Protection Act of 2000" before the name was made more innocuous) assures patients that the HMO employees who deny them care will be doctors. One insurance-company executive admitted the bill will do little to change the way he does business.
That's because the plan doesn't allow Floridians to sue HMOs for improperly denying medical care, and that's what Morgan wants changed. Already Morgan has put out radio and TV ads asking people to rally around his anti-HMO banner, and starting early next year, many more will be on the way. Making HMOs liable, Morgan says, will motivate the industry to cleanse itself.
During the next two years, Morgan plans to spend up to $6 million of his own money on a grass-roots campaign to add a Patients' Bill of Rights amendment to Florida's constitution.
The response from the insurance industry is predictable: Morgan's just trying to make a buck.
Morgan, however, insists he's never planning on recouping his investment. To him, it's an altruistic venture, he says, a modern-day David-and-Goliath story. "They know we're there," Morgan says. "We're fucking knocking their teeth out. These insurance companies are bullies. The only thing a bully understands is a good kick in the balls."
Morgan's not quite the boring lawyer he plays on TV. It's almost a stretch, in fact, to call him a practicing trial attorney. He hasn't been in court in months -- his role at the firm, he says, is almost strictly administrative. Right now, he's only involved in three cases.
But he does keep busy. Morgan is a businessman and entrepreneur, currently involved at least a dozen active corporations. He's done it all, from being a hotelier to managing a boxer to selling real estate to owning the very successful WonderWorks attraction on International Drive.; ;
It was that last business interest that led him into the most divisive local political fight in memory: light rail. The rail line backed by Lynx and championed by Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood would have seen I-Drive under construction for at least three years, blocking tourists' left-hand turns into WonderWorks.
So Morgan teamed with radio talk-show host Doug Guetzloe's "Ax the Tax" group, which argued that rail would bankrupt the city. Morgan's ensuing radio ad went right for the juggler: He labeled light rail the "crime train" and said it would ferry downtown's worst element to I-Drive.
The public listened, as did the Orange County Commission. In a 4-3 vote, the commission deep-sixed rail. For everyone but Hood, it was over. The mayor, though, along with two city commissioners, acted quickly, taking an impromptu vote in favor of a rail project that would stay inside city limits.
With a looming city election, that vote became the season's political lightning rod. Guetzloe organized a recall effort against the mayor, which Morgan supported with even more radio ads. Morgan's office, meanwhile, sued the city, saying the new rail vote was illegal because only four of the commissioners were present.
Light rail officially died when the state pulled out its support, but the controversy lived on. Rumors surfaced that Morgan was considering a run at Hood's office, despite the fact that he lives outside the city limits. Morgan's off-the-cuff comment to a news reporter fueled the speculation: "John Morgan drunk," he said, "would be a better mayor than Glenda Hood sober." It was a tongue-in-cheek reference to Morgan's 1997 DUI arrest. (A recovering alcoholic, he says he hasn't drank since.)
Then Councilman Bruce Gordy announced his mayoral candidacy. In the debates that followed, Hood claimed that Gordy was the puppet of Morgan and Guetzloe. "They don't pull my strings," Hood said, to the cheers of the Tiger Bay Club.
In the end, Gordy's lackluster campaign kept Hood in power, but her victory was mitigated by having all the commissioners who supported her rail efforts voted off the council.
At least in part, Guetzloe credits Morgan's advertisements with light rail's demise. "[The ads] created the necessary environment," he says, "for those four county commissioners to do what they needed to do. More interesting, and John doesn't tell you this, he has a true commitment to what's right for people. It wasn't just dollars and cents for John Morgan."
For once, Morgan's famous deadpan breaks into a slight grin: "You want to see a magic trick?" he asks. He reaches into a desk drawer and pulls out a small, clear bar, maybe 4 inches long and a half-inch wide, with six different-colored jewels imbedded in it. "Pick a number, one through six," he says.
I say six.
"OK, now pick a color."
I choose pink. He tells me to concentrate on the color pink, and he turns the bar slightly and shakes it in his hand. Like a consummate performer, every move is deliberate and exaggerated.
When he turns the bar over, all six gems are pink. Morgan laughs. He learned magic, he says later, as a child from a baby sitter's boyfriend. "The boyfriend," he quips, "did his magic with me, then I went to bed, and he did his magic with my baby sitter." Even when he's joking, that famous monotone fluctuates only a bit.
Both Morgan and his office give off an aura of wealth, from the cushy leather chairs to the thick mahogany desk to the 8-by-10 pictures on the bookshelf of Morgan with his family. He's a man at the top of his game, rich and, by all accounts, completely happy. He's married with four kids, has a home in ultra-exclusive Heathrow and drives a fully loaded Cadillac.
Business-wise, he's building what he calls his own Coney Island on I-Drive, which when finished will encompass WonderWorks, the now-under-construction Magical Midway, as well as two other projects that are still in the planning stage. (One, called Crime and Punishment, will be built to resemble a jail and will feature reconstructed cells of actual criminals -- including one that serial killer Ted Bundy once resided in.)
Morgan's friends credit his success to his central characteristic: drive. Morgan, it seems, is always involved in something. And, says longtime friend and business partner Robin Turner, that's how he's always been.
"John came from a broken home," Turner says. "His mom kind of deserted him. His dad went from job to job." Being the eldest of five siblings, Turner adds, Morgan often had to take care of them. "All of them had no direction," Turner says. "It all came from John."
Indeed, Morgan has worked all his life, mowing grass and taking paper routes to make a few dollars. When his family moved to Orlando from Kentucky when Morgan was in the ninth grade, he began working at Walt Disney World, performing -- what else? -- magic. Later he moved on, playing costumed characters like Fiddler Pig or Pluto.
"The greatest days of my life were at Disney World," Morgan says. "I loved every minute of it."
To pay his way through college, he sold plants. To pay his way through law school, he spent 18 months selling Yellow Pages ads, earning more than $50,000. Unfortunately, Morgan says, his home life at the time was a "zoo." His father was unemployed, and the family was behind on its bills, so it fell to him to keep the ship afloat.
Morgan quickly trekked through the University of Florida's law school, graduating in less than two years. Deciding to enter the personal-injury field was easy. "I'm not the brightest bulb in the lot," Morgan admits. "So I knew I couldn't do [corporate law], where you sit behind a desk and read fine print. I knew that wasn't for me. I wanted to be involved, filing lawsuits. You know, I wanted to make money."
So he applied to only personal-injury firms. The small Orlando firm Billings and Cunningham hired him for a paltry $10,000 salary with bonuses for hunting down new cases. That didn't last long. "I'm not a good employee," Morgan says. "I wanted X amount of dollars, and they wouldn't give it to me, so I quit."
In 1985, he formed Griffin, Morgan and Linder, but the chemistry wasn't right. Four years later, Morgan and Stewart Colling -- an associate of Griffin, Morgan and Linder -- left to form Morgan, Colling and Gilbert, which in 10 years has expanded into the behemoth it is today.
"I just worked real hard," Morgan says, "hung out in union halls, drank beer and threw darts with plumbers, pipe fitters, electrical workers. I lived in union halls." In other words, he made contacts. And, of course, he advertised.
Right off the bat, the upstart firm invested $100,000 into advertising. And that budget, already a monster in legal circles, grew hand-in-hand with Morgan's business to its current $6 million mark. "You had to take a little less money than you were used to taking," Morgan says, "and file it back to advertising. That was OK with me because the cases were growing exponentially. I always knew I had it in me."
With his face and voice recognizable statewide, Morgan is at the forefront of legal advertising. Apparently, the formula works: Morgan has more than 60 lawyers and hundreds of support staffers. The firm takes on about 1,500 cases a month and is in trial nearly every week. In short, it's a money-making machine.
If Morgan's constant ads irritate you, just imagine what they do to his fellow attorneys, many of whom believe advertising is dragging the profession's perception through the gutter. "There is certainly a great debate within the profession," says Orlando attorney Mike McMahon, who sits on the Florida Bar Association's Board of Governors. "A substantial number of lawyers would like to go back to the days when no advertising was allowed of any sort."
A 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision bars that possibility. The court has ruled, however, that states can put restrictions on lawyers' ads. In 1995, the Florida Bar established a task force of about 15 attorneys, including Morgan, to look into the matter of putting limits on ads. Two years later, the task force recommended a complete ban of all broadcast advertising, saying it was the easiest medium for lawyers to mislead the public.
Morgan and others raised hell. "It's really the older lawyers," Morgan says, "the old guys who need to retire, to go to the beach and get a Geiger counter and sweep for nickels and dimes."
That's a sentiment that David Bianchi, a Miami attorney who is also on the Board of Governors, disputes. "My guess is that the majority [of Florida attorneys] do not advertise and do not think highly of the whole concept of lawyer advertising," he says. Florida has 65,000 lawyers, he adds, and nowhere near half of them advertise.
The governing board rejected that proposed ban, a move for which Morgan takes credit. "The board disagreed with the task force because they were going to lose and I was going to sue them," he says. The board did go along with the task force's subsequent recommendations, given the next year. The Florida Supreme Court, which regulates advertising restrictions, didn't accept all of the board's suggestions. It didn't, for example, allow the recommended ban on trade names, such as "The Ticket Clinic."
It did, however, keep the most important of the restrictions: the rules on visual backdrop. It must be either a single, solid color, a set of law books, or a lawyer's actual office. Older restrictions, also, were retained, specifically those concerning performance claims or comparisons with other lawyers.
"It's three things," Morgan says of his detractors. "One, it's lawyers that don't advertise and then financially suffer at my hands. Two, lawyers who represent insurance companies and doctors and hospitals and nursing homes don't want me to get my message out. Third, there's a small amount of people who oppose advertising philosophically, and they're the only people I respect. Most of these guys are hypocrites.
"But guess who the winner is," he continues. "It's me. The young [attorney] is never going to compete financially. He's going to compete creatively. What they've done, they've taken away young folk's creativity. Nothing is as restrictive as Florida."
He should know. His advertising has worked so well, Morgan's taken his show on the road. He now travels throughout the country, conducting a seminar called "Creating a Multi-Million Dollar Law Firm." "Once I've got these people connected to my network," he says, "I can control mass torts in America."
For years, business interests have pushed tort-reform measures aimed at limiting punitive damages. In response, the Republican-dominated Florida legislature passed the Tort Reform Act of 1999, which caps punitive damages at only three times compensatory damages (except in cases of gross negligence).
The idea of limiting what someone can win in a lawsuit first brought Morgan into the political arena. "If you get involved in this, you got two choices," he says. "You could be a lawyer who sits back and doesn't contribute financially and emotionally to the fight -- there's a lot of those guys: takers, who sit back and hope that I continue to pump money into it. And then you got other lawyers who say, hey, this is my livelihood, these are my clients, I've got a fiduciary obligation to pay for my fair share. I've always felt that I should have to pay to help protect the rights of my clients."
Over the years, that conviction evolved into quite a political presence. In the last 18 months, Morgan personally has contributed more than $20,000 to various national campaigns, mostly Democratic. (His firm gives even more money to the parties.) Over the years he's made friends in high places, including House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. In 1996, Morgan sat on Bill Clinton's campaign-finance committee.; ;
It seems logical that Morgan's increasingly frequent attacks on politicians and HMOs, taken with his light-rail fight, would forecast a life in politics. But Morgan's political ambitions are not very ambitious at all.
"Somebody once asked me," he says, "‘Why don't you run for office?' He said, ‘Why, do you have skeletons in your closet?' I said, ‘Shit, I don't have skeletons, I have live bodies in my closet.' I would never want to have the scrutiny that you have to undergo to run for office." Besides, he adds, the money isn't right.
"To me," he says, "public service is commendable. Most of the time, it's really kind of the guys who are the last choice -- but they're willing to do it."
On politics, Morgan can be blunt. He dismisses Rep. Bill McCollum, for instance, as a "public disgrace." He financially supports Democrats because the "[Republican] leadership," he says, "Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, are just two mean sons of bitches -- all they care about is making the rich richer."
Most interesting is his take on local politics. "I don't really have issues with the city of Orlando," he says. "My trash gets picked up elsewhere. The real thing [I learned from light rail] is how irrelevant the city of Orlando is. I'd just as soon be the mayor of Longwood as the mayor of Orlando. They're politically equal. The national press thinks the city of Orlando is a power, everybody here knows it's a joke. The power is with [county Chairman Mel Martinez]."
The patients' bill of rights is certainly not Morgan's domain alone. Presidential candidate Al Gore has made "patients' rights" a campaign plank, promising to get "bean counters" out of medical decisions and airing numerous TV ads on restructuring Medicare to help seniors pay for medication.
With an election just two months away, the issue seems to be coming to a head. Democrats tell voters that they're taking on big corporations to help the little guy. Republicans, meanwhile, are stuck in that all-too-familiar position of defending big business. Overregulation, they say, will raise costs and leave many uninsured.
As an issue, health care is more than 50 years old. In the 1940s, says CATO Institute director of health-policy studies Tom Miller, the government used tax breaks to encourage businesses to provide their employees with health-insurance packages.
Thus, health-insurance companies grew in popularity. For employees -- and for individuals who privately bought insurance -- the deal worked out pretty well. For a monthly fee, they would get breaks on doctors visits, hospitals stays and prescription medicines. Employers, meanwhile, used it as part of compensation packages to lure new hires.
In the 1980s, health-care costs skyrocketed, and businesses began to look for cheaper coverage. It was then that HMOs -- who could underprice the traditional carriers -- gained prominence. Two decades later, nearly 60 million Americans belong to HMOs. Miller says there are roughly six major HMOs and several smaller ones, and they constitute a multibillion-dollar industry.
In terms of popular sentiment, however, they're increasingly disliked. HMOs are cheaper because they're good at cutting costs. And sometimes, patients' rights advocates say, that cost-cutting comes at the expense of good medicine.
Insurance companies have practiced what's known as "managed care" -- placing specifications on how many doctor visits are covered annually -- but nowhere near the intensity of HMO management, which is notorious for limiting hospital stays and for requiring second, and sometimes third, opinions before allowing expensive treatments.
HMOs say they're simply eliminating abuse, which saves customers money. But critics see it differently: HMOs have put the bottom line before their patients' -- their customers' -- safety.
They point to the set-up where HMOs pay doctors via a per-patient stipend, meaning that, for doctors, whatever is left over after treating the patient is profit. That creates a situation, says Morgan, where doctors are "financially incentivized not to send your mother to the MRI center, not to send you to the treadmill, not to send you to the CAT scan. It's a vicious, vicious cycle, and people are dying."
Also, says Melbourne cardiologist Dr. Rajiv Chandra, HMOs "cherry-pick" their clientele, essentially trying to run off their elderly and infirm patients. Because of his disagreements with the way HMOs do business, he refuses to work with them.
If a younger person joins an HMO, says Chandra, "They love you because you're not sick. They give you a good deal." That changes, however, as you get older and more ill. As prescription costs increase and doctor visits become more frequent, he says, the HMOs purposefully run them in circles, hoping they'll get frustrated and leave the program.
"A lot of doctors aren't happy," says Miller. Some, he says, want a return to the days when insurers paid the bill and stopped asking so many questions.
One result of all this is the Patients' Bill of Rights, which is supported by 81 percent of registered voters, according to a July Washington Post poll. Still, only Texas and Missouri have pushed it so far. (In Texas, a provision allowing patients to sue their HMO passed despite a George W. Bush veto.) That seems to be the tip of the iceberg. Morgan is following a trend -- one that not everybody sees as a positive one.
"The Patients' Bill of Rights," Miller says, "is a pretty bad piece of legislation. It's not the right answer to the right problems." He feels that allowing people to sue their insurer will, in reality, give way to frivolous litigation based on contractual misunderstandings.
"Everybody realizes HMOs do have shortcomings," says Jodi Chase, lobbyist for Associated Industries of Florida, a business interest group. "Everybody's trying to work that out. [But] the government can only do so much. Real changes come through consumer demand." Overregulating the industry, she says, will make insurance too high-priced for employers to offer.
She doubts Morgan's sincerity, implying that the ones who will benefit will be Morgan and his ilk. "It sounds like a real self-serving thing to me," she says.
Self-serving or not, it's going ahead. Morgan says he's enlisted nearly 3,000 volunteers, who next year will begin seeking the petitions necessary to put the matter on the ballot in November 2002.
Already he has a "shitload" of bill-of-rights ads on radio and TV, and in the coming year, those ads will become more and more specific -- and frequent. The amendment's language is still a bit guarded; Morgan has a rough draft, he says, but it will be shown to focus groups before it's unveiled to the general public.
For Morgan, the cause is personal. "I know that there are bad people running these companies," he says, an intensity beginning to surface in his voice. "Their whole business is to make money, and people are injured and are deprived of some of the benefits they're entitled to, and some of these fat cats are making a small fortune. They've become my enemy. I really believe that if it's not me, it won't be anybody else."
Morgan -- whose offices sit on the ninth and 16th floors of the downtown First Union Bank -- owns a mock courtroom, which he and other attorneys, including Johnnie Cochran, use to film ads and prepare for trials.
After Morgan's commercial shoot has wrapped, a man in a pink polo shirt is sitting behind what would be the plaintiff's table. Morgan's office, he says, represented him in a worker's compensation claim. Morgan shoots the breeze with him for a few minutes, discussing everything from Morgan's background to union activity. The man tells Morgan he's very satisfied with how the firm handled his case.
"You're in the business of people," the man says. "People think -- you happen to practice law, but you're in the business of people."
Morgan smiles. "Sometimes," he replies.