Morgan Cook on how she learned of her SPJ award: “I was working late one day and Matt Hall walked up and sat down at the desk next to mine with this grin on his face. He said he had some news for me. I was so surprised and excited I kind of squealed a little bit when he told me. He might as well have walked up and dumped a basket of Labrador puppies in my lap. It was such a huge, unexpected honor just to be nominated by journalists I’ve looked up to since I was a cub reporter. Actually being chosen is overwhelming. It’s a feeling that defies description.” Photo via San Diego SPJ

Morgan Cook’s ground-breaking reporting on Rep. Duncan Hunter’s personal use of campaign funding led to her being named San Diego Journalist of the Year.

But a chance meeting in Central America deserves recognition as well.

During a summer 2008 trip, the University of Missouri journalism star crossed paths with Sam Hodgson, then the Voice of San Diego photo editor.

“I met Sam in a bagel shop in Antigua, Guatemala,” Cook says. “Had I not run into him at that bagel shop, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.”

That’s because Hodgson told Cook about an opening at the North County Times — the Oceanside-based daily acquired in 2012 by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Despite never having worked at a paper outside her school, Cook applied.

Dan McSwain, then the Times managing editor, interviewed her and hired Cook on the spot.

“I packed up my stuff and moved to San Diego” from New York City, she says.

Hodgson, now a New York-based photojournalist, says he’ll never forget that Guatemala meeting.

“I asked her about herself — and before she could answer, I just knew she was going to tell me she was a journalist,” he told Times of San Diego. “She just carried herself like a reporter. Within only a few minutes of meeting, we were discussing our shared love for [IRS] Form 990, a financial document that nonprofit organizations must release.”

Last week’s news that the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists had named Cook the year’s top local journalist didn’t surprise Hodgson.

“I’ve watched her stories unfold throughout the year about the misappropriation of campaign funds by Congressman Hunter,” he said. “And I know the passion Morgan has for investigative journalism. San Diego and the U-T are very lucky to have Morgan on staff, because I know that her allegiance isn’t to any one institution or city — it’s to the Truth, wherever that may take her.”

Cook’s journey began in Missouri, where she was born and raised.

The daughter of John and Bekki Cook, retired lawyers who now live in New Mexico, Morgan earned a degree in English literature at Missouri in 2004.

After college, she found work in a literary talent agency in New York.

“It wasn’t a great fit,” she says, “and the jobs I got working in the TV and film industries weren’t the right fit either. I was feeling very lost. I didn’t know what I wanted or how to move forward.”

Then her father suggested graduate school — in journalism.

“He said he thought I would like it because it combined some of my favorite things: teaching and reading and writing and learning,” she recalls. “I didn’t have a better idea, so I figured I had nothing to lose.”

Back in Columbia, Missouri, where students and professors operate a city newspaper, she found what she calls her “perfect fit.”

“I’m not too cool to admit my dad was right,” Cook says.

Katherine Reed, an associate professor at Mizzou, was her reporting teacher.

“We have a lot of good students come through Missouri, but Morgan stood out for her energy, enthusiasm and determination to be the best she could be,” Reed said via email. “She also can smell a story from a mile away, which not everyone can do.”

Reed cites an example: a trailer park where inspection codes were being ignored and people were living in squalor.

But a scary moment proved Cook’s mettle.

“She called me once from a hiding place in the bathroom of a mobile home when she was reporting on that trailer park,” Reed said. “She had been told not to go there alone because the manager … had told her he didn’t want her on the property.”

But Cook had an invitation to speak to a resident, so there she was. Then the park manager learned of her presence.

“So she called me to tell me she was trapped because the park manager was outside yelling for her to come out,” Reed says. “It was very tricky, and she scared the hell out of me. But she’s not necessarily the sort of reporter who takes ‘no’ for an answer.”

Another story saw Cook undertake a long investigation into the opaque practices of a government agency that served people with disabilities.

“I think the frustrations of that story set her on the path she’s on right now,” Reed says.

Cook began grad school with self-doubt — “didn’t even know how to write a basic news story” — but emerged a savvy reporter “bitten by the watchdog/investigative journalism bug,” Reed says. “Morgan is one in a million.”

McSwain, the North County Times exec who hired Cook, is now a U-T business columnist. He recalls Cook — but not her writing samples.

“I generally paid great attention to clips in my hiring decisions, yet I honestly don’t remember hers,” McSwain says. “Instead, it was the interview that clinched her spot in our newsroom. Morgan was smart and hungry. Her passion for journalism was palpable.”

After nearly 3 1/2 years at the NC Times as a police reporter, Cook appealed to Chris Knap, the investigations editor at the Orange County Register, for a job, worried about being laid off by the U-T when it bought the North County daily.

But before she could jump to the Santa Ana-based paper, the U-T’s Ricky Young recruited Cook for his Watchdog team. She worked in Mission Valley for two months.

Morgan Cook on her reaction to SPJ award: “It was such a huge, unexpected honor just to be nominated by journalists I’ve looked up to since I was a cub reporter. Actually being chosen is overwhelming. It’s a feeling that defies description.” Photo via Twitter

“I had no idea how happy I would be at the U-T, or how hard it would be to leave,” she says. But she went to the Register in November 2012, hired away by Knap.

“I had a great time on the Reg’s amazing, amazing Watchdog team, and learned so much from them,” she says. “The Reg developed really serious financial problems and ended up laying off a ton of reporters, myself eventually included” after nearly two years on the job.

Out of work for five months, she says she interviewed at a “lot of great papers” and scored a few job offers, “but I really wanted to return to Ricky and the U-T.”

“Because I have always been treated better than I deserve (and because I’m one of the luckiest people in the world), the U-T took me back,” she says. “I’ve been trying every day since to make them glad they did.”

Among the grateful is Jeff Light, U-T editor and publisher.

“Watchdog jobs can be particularly difficult,” Light says. “It’s hard to get to the bottom of things. When you ask difficult questions, people have a way of dragging their feet or clouding the picture. So it can be frustrating.”

Watchdog subjects don’t thank reporters, “and their allies sometimes try to undermine you,” he noted.

“So it’s nice when someone says, ‘Good job.’ I was really glad to see Morgan get that sort of recognition.”

Ricky Young, head of the U-T Watchdog Team, says Cook puts a lot of effort into “knowing where the bodies are buried — that is, where to find information about a wide range of things very quickly.”

Morgan Cook on the phone during North County Times days, reporting on a disabled cruise ship. Photo by Bill Wechter

“She’s a backgrounder, and a good one,” Young says. “She does her homework. She is aggressive in seeking information, in a lot of interesting places. You get the feeling she has absorbed and improved on a lot of [Investigative Reporters and Editors] tipsheets.”

And contrary to the view that reporters don’t give up on wild goose chases, Cook is aggressive about “prosecuting” the original story tip, Young says.

“If it doesn’t pan out, based on the information she has dug up, she is quick to drop it — out of fairness, yes, but also out of a dedication to the truth. And she makes sure to listen with an open mind to the subjects of her reporting, which strengthens her reports in the end.”

What special challenges did Cook overcome on her nearly two dozen Hunter stories?

“The central difficulty has been Hunter’s team, which has responded to straightforward questions with riddles and insults,” Young said. “They want to paint things in a partisan light, as if we’re out to get him. That’s not the case; we just want to understand where the money came from, where it went and why.”

Editor Light calls Cook detail-oriented and a reporter who understands the importance of persistence and thoroughness.

“She’s also a notably fair-minded person,” Light says. “In the case of the Hunter story, she’s been subjected to what looks to me like pretty juvenile baiting by the congressman and his staff. You would never see Morgan act that way.”

(Joe Kasper, Washington-based spokesman for Republican Hunter, did not respond to a Times of San Diego request for comment on Cook’s award.)

Although Cook, 34, cast ballots as a Democrat in the 2012 and 2016 presidential primaries, according to voter records, she’s an equal opportunity money-follower.

She dogged Democrat Doug Applegate on irregularities in his own campaign spending accounting in the wake of his slim loss to Rep. Darrell Issa in a North County race.

Single and a North Park resident, Cook responded to questions via email.

Times of San Diego: You told [student journalist] Sera Smith: ”With investigative journalism, you can do something you believe in. You see results.” What results would you like to see from your Duncan Hunter stories?

Morgan Cook. Her first local employer, Dan McSwain, says: “I’m delighted and completely unsurprised [by her award]. Morgan persisted on the story despite plenty of blowback. Tenacity is key to those kinds of stories.” Photo by Sam Hodgson

Morgan Cook: I’ve already seen the results I was hoping for. Hunter has repaid his campaign for many of the expenditures we questioned, federal regulators and investigators are looking into the situation, and Hunter’s most recent campaign spending has many fewer questionable charges than it had a year ago. I think that’s all great progress.

Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper has accused the Union-Tribune of “liberal bias,” but you have written stories embarrassing to Democrats. How do you keep partisan politics out of your journalism?

Luckily for me, we have a very talented political reporter, Josh Stewart, who handles all that stuff. My job is focused on the rules, which are the same for lawmakers and candidates in all political parties. The rules and the facts don’t change based on the political opinions of the reporter, editors, the paper or anyone else.

You make great use of public records, but do you also visit possible sources — Woodstein-style shoe leather journalism? What percentage of your Hunter reporting was checking out databases and contacting people and businesses listed?

Most of this investigation has been records-based. Most of the facts have been hiding in plain sight. Of course, human sources are important to verify facts and gather additional information, but the heart of these stories is printed in black and white for anyone to see. Most of what I’ve been doing is piecing together available public information and connecting the dots.

You’ve praised the inspiration of previous Journalist of the Year Jeff McDonald, and I assume your editor Ricky Young has helped as well. Who at the U-T or earlier in your career have been your most important mentors?

Morgan Cook. Dan McSwain adds: “Lesser reporters would have stopped after the first couple of revelations and simply accepted the official explanations of ‘nothing to see here, honest mistake.’” Morgan knew to keep going until the story was exhausted, which means she’s still going.” Photo by Sam Hodgson

Wow, this is so hard to say. I’ve had so much help and support in my career — the list would be too long to print. Ricky is very much my teammate. The Hunter investigation is very much OUR work. We are a great team and we have So. Much. Fun.

Have you read the U-T’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Duke Cunningham scandal (which led to his prison sentence for bribery) or the book the Copley team produced? See any similarities between Hunter and Cunningham?

I’ve read the amazing Cunningham coverage. I wouldn’t venture to offer an opinion about similarities between Cunningham and Hunter.

What do you do for fun or relaxation? Hobbies or special talents?

I’m actually trying to find a hobby. I need one. I read a lot, but reading isn’t a great hobby for someone who reads and writes for a living. So I’m open to suggestions. I feel like I should learn to surf because I live in San Diego and I can, but so far my attempts to surf have resulted in little more than repeated near-drownings (plus a black eye and a stingray sting), so perhaps I should pursue a hobby that is slightly less likely to kill me.

What fun fact can you tell about yourself that nobody knows?

I’m not willing to go public with any information nobody knows about me. That said, among the things relatively few people know about me is that my go-to karaoke jam is “Little Red Corvette.”

Outside of the Hunter series, what other stories are you most proud of? At U-T or earlier.

I’m proud of a lot of my work. Favorites include:

[Columbia Journalism Review awarded her a “laurel” for her Register work on Medicare Part D. “Understanding and simplifying the absurdly complex systems involved was a huge challenge,” she says. “It was an extremely difficult project to produce.”]

Would you like to work at a major investigative outlet someday — like New York Times, Washington Post or a group like ProPublica? How do you see your career developing?

I would never rule out the possibility of working at a big-time investigative news outlet like ProPublica someday, but I’m really, really happy exactly where I am. It would take a lot to lure me away from the U-T.

Anything else readers should know about you or your Hunter series?

Only that I welcome any and all tips, anonymous or on the record. Call me. Send me stuff. Tell me something I don’t know. All help is welcome.

Updated at 2 p.m. May 24, 2017