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In 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, Fla., 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 & Punishment. 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. N.W. 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. MOST WANTED 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 man a phone bank at the museum during the show. Why another museum? “America is obsessed with crime and punishment,” says Morgan. “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,” says Morgan. “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,” says Morgan. 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. UPSIDE-DOWN MUSEUM 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 says. 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 Cochran’s name. “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. John 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 cholesterol drug). 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 George W. 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 success.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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