Crime and punishment museum*
- _Reprints & Permissions_
Orlando lawyer best that crime (attraction) will pay
February 29, 2008 By: Tony Mauro
b4e6b55455a417267414142475665?) n Washington, D.C. — a city of free museums,
the FBI, the Supreme Court, and the Justice Department — it takes a lot of
self-confidence to launch a new paid-admission museum devoted to crime and
punishment in the United States.
Enter John Morgan, the famed personal-injury lawyer from Orlando who uses
the slogan “For the People.” He’s betting $22 million that he can pull it off
by opening, sometime in May, what he is calling the National Museum of Crime
The 51-year-old Morgan, who boasts that he has “never had a billable time
sheet in my hand,” is investing contingent-fee earnings along with his
passion, showmanship and business acumen into the venture, which he clearly hopes
will rival the popularity of the International Spy Museum. That Penn Quarter
phenom has attracted 3.5 million visitors in five years.
In fact, the future home of Morgan’s National Museum of Crime & Punishment
is not far from the spy museum. It is taking shape behind a historic facade
in the Terrell Place development at 575 7th St. NW That’s between the District
Chophouse & Brewery and the office building housing the law firm Venable.
Rosa Mexicano restaurant is around the corner and the Verizon Center is nearby.
Morgan says he is filling the three floors of space with “fantastic
artifacts,” like the bullet-riddled 1934 Ford used in two “Bonnie and Clyde” movies,
John Dillinger’s Essex and “extremely interactive” exhibits, such as crime
scene and car chase simulations, a virtual FBI shooting range, and a crime
scene investigation lab where visitors can solve forensic mysteries.
But the biggest draw may be Morgan’s friend and business partner, John
Walsh, whose weekly “America’s Most Wanted” show will broadcast from the museum,
spotlighting unsolved crimes and rapists on the loose. Morgan says the
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children will staff a phone bank at the
museum during the show.
Why another museum? “America is obsessed with crime and punishment,” Morgan
says. “Television is loaded with it, movies, tabloids. How many Natalee
Holloway specials are there?” Morgan was visiting Alcatraz in California five
years ago when that American obsession became clear to him — and the idea of a
museum took shape.
But Morgan is quick to add that his museum will not glorify crime or
criminals. Walsh exacted that pledge before signing on to the project. “The message
has to be that crime does not pay,” Morgan says. “There are consequences.”
The “punishment” section of the museum will make that clear, with exhibits
on prisons and methods of execution. “It’s a very special balance.”
As importantly, Morgan says he is committed to creating a 21st-century
institution that will compete with the free museums of the Smithsonian
Institution. “There’s a new generation of people who don’t want to just walk and read
when they go to a museum,” he says. “The Air and Space Museum goes downhill
real fast after you see the Spirit of St. Louis. America doesn’t want to get
bogged down in the minutiae.”
The spy museum proved that people are willing to pay for “a product that
exceeds what they expect,” Morgan says. The new museum will charge $17.95,
almost exactly the amount charged by the spy museum. The soon-to-open Newseum on
Pennsylvania Avenue, which also promises an interactive experience, is
planning to charge $20 for adults. Morgan is also emboldened by the fact that the
FBI has suspended its tours indefinitely in the post-9/11 era.
Morgan is no novice to museums. If you’ve been to Orlando and seen
WonderWorks (“Central Florida’s only upside down attraction”), complete with
simulated earthquakes and other mayhem, you’ve seen his handiwork. Morgan’s
Attraction Concepts firm created it. “This is a challenge we’re used to,” Morgan
And Morgan is not entirely new to Washington, either. Years ago he partnered
with the late Johnnie Cochran and friends at Cohen Milstein Hausfeld & Toll
to open a branch in the District of the national law firm that still bears
“John’s a character and a marketing genius as much as he is a lawyer,” says
Cohen Milstein managing partner Steven Toll, who is also a minor partner in
the museum project. “The museum is the kind of thing he could pull off where
others might not.”
But plaintiffs’ work is still the engine behind Morgan’s business. With 100
lawyers in Florida alone and $100 million in fees last year, he runs the
firm Morgan & Morgan with his wife, Ultima, out of offices across the South.
There’s another Morgan at his firm as well, who inspired it all. His brother
Tim was injured at Walt Disney World 31 years ago and is now a quadriplegic who
helps with client intake. Morgan claims 3,600 new clients a month, and his
Web site, offers viewers a cornucopia of mishaps for which he’ll discuss
potential claims — from contaminated frozen pizza to ineffective Vytorin (a
Because he feels he is helping the little guy, John Morgan says, he has
avoided the “burnout of billable hours.” By working on a contingent basis, he
says, “I don’t have to bill anybody. If I don’t win, I don’t get paid.”
Personal-injury work is still very profitable, Morgan asserts, in spite of
efforts by the Bush administration, the Supreme Court, and then-Florida Gov.
Jeb Bush to limit damages. “They talk about junk lawsuits, but it’s only
frivolous until it’s you.”
Then Morgan gets started on politics. He says the damage President Bush and
the conservative Supreme Court have done to the middle class and to the
consumer is “disgraceful.” Bush, he adds, has “wrecked the economy and caught
the world on fire” with an administration that can only be described as “
incompetent, inept, and arrogant.”
Morgan was a fund-raiser for Bill Clinton, had ties to fellow trial lawyer
John Edwards and hosted Barack Obama for a fund-raiser at his home in 2006. He
can’t wait for the Bush legacy to come to an end.
For now, Morgan is fired up about his plan for a museum in the District,
though he readily acknowledges it’s a gamble.
How will Morgan measure success? By August, he says, he’ll know if the paid
advertising and the “millions and millions in free publicity” that John
Walsh will bring to the museum translate into crowds through the turnstile.
“If you see me drunk at Old Ebbitt Grill, you’ll know it’s a failure,” he
laughs. “If I’m eating the guacamole at Rosa Mexicano, that means it’s a
Tony Mauro is U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for ALM Media, parent of the
Daily Business Review.
**************Ideas to please picky eaters. Watch video on AOL Living.
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