Wortham declares bid for district attorney

Judge Bob Wortham

 

The next chapter in the storied life of Bob Wortham began Nov. 6 when the man who has been a state district judge in Jefferson County – twice – and served for 12 years as the United States Attorney for the Eastern District announced that he would seek the nomination of his party for the office of district attorney.

This lion of the local Bar has already amassed a distinguished record of service as a federal prosecutor, district judge and private attorney, and has been known as an innovator and legal pioneer whose landmark cases have had national impact. The retirement of Tom Maness after 27 years as district attorney has created a vacuum in Jefferson County’s criminal jurisprudence, and Wortham decided he still has a contribution to make.

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The afternoon before he officially throws his hat in the ring to run for district attorney, it is business as usual in the judge’s chambers of the 58th District Court. They’re on jury watch in the courtroom as 12 men and women deliberate their verdict in a civil case after a two-day trial.

Like everyone else, Judge Wortham waits as the jury ponders its decision. He tells a visitor he considers Maness a friend and would not have challenged him for reelection had he not chosen to retire.

Wortham suggests he will be more “aggressive” in how he runs the district attorney’s office and offers some specifics.

“I want to put my style in the office,” he declared. “My style is more aggressive than his; I attack problems – I find the problems and I go after them and resolve them.”

His motive is simple: “I want to make Jefferson County a better and safer place,” he said. “I want this place to prosper, and to do that, you can’t be afraid to go after any case. I will do what the citizens of Jefferson County want me to do. You lead by example. You don’t tell everybody ‘go work your ass off’ – and then you never show up. No one in that office will work harder than me – and when the boss is there working, then the troops usually work. … I think I can motivate people to be better lawyers than they ever thought they could be. We can get up there and do a lot of good for Jefferson County.”

County residents don’t have to speculate as to what Wortham might do as district attorney, he said. His record as a prosecutor speaks for itself.

“When I was the U.S. Attorney, we would take the biggest cases. The best way to tell what someone is going to do in the future is to see what they have done in the past. If you were a leader in the past and you made things happen, chances are you’ll be a leader in the future,” he said. “When I took over, I had seven lawyers in the (U.S. Attorney’s) office and I grew that little office – when I left, we had 42 lawyers.”

He was U.S. Attorney under Ronald Reagan – who appointed him – and the first President Bush. Neither man was a proponent of bigger government; nor was Wortham, but the Department of Justice gave him the troops he needed to get the job done – and it paid off.

Wortham successfully prosecuted the drug-smuggling case against wealthy rancher Rex Cauble and the “Cowboy mafia,” including the first enforcement of a federal racketeering law passed years earlier. The money forfeited in that case – over $100 million – was more than the total seized by all U.S. Attorneys in the country combined up to that time.

He also took on unscrupulous practices in the marketing of timeshares, an industry that had been rife with corruption for years. On his watch, there was enforcement of environmental laws without fear or favor. Wortham also started the Gun Free Drug Free School Zones program. This program made it a federal offense to possess or use weapons or illegal drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or playground.

Largely behind the scenes but hugely important, Wortham was instrumental in bringing federal, state and local law enforcement agencies together in what became a national model.

Of course, he didn’t do it alone, and much credit must go to the team in his office – a team he personally assembled. Among the prosecutors Wortham hired, one is now a federal judge, another is a state judge, four are federal magistrates and three are U.S. attorneys in other districts.

Beaumont Chief of Police Jimmy Singletary is a long-time admirer of Wortham. 

“I’ve known Bob Wortham for over 40 years as a prosecutor, judge and friend,” Singletary said. “Based on my long acquaintance with him, I know he’s pro-law enforcement and will be a great district attorney.”

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The bell in his chambers rings, indicating the jury has reached a verdict. The parties return to the courtroom and the foreman hands the verdict to the bailiff, the dispute at issue this day resolved. Judge Wortham thanks them for their service and reminds them of the greatness of the jury system.

In fact, the 58th District Court is a place where justice lives – just ask Trudie Crutchfield. After her modest Fannett home was battered in Hurricane Rita, she struggled to rebuild. But it was a more quiet storm from Countrywide Home Loans and Bank of America that pushed her to the limits of human endurance. This single mother of six children stood her ground and refused to become collateral damage in the home mortgage scandal that rocked the U.S. economy and thousands of honest, hard-working homeowners like her.

“I was going to fight until there was no fight left in me,” declared Crutchfield. After an epic struggle that spanned more than five years and saw the lender wrongfully foreclose on her home not once but three times, she finally got a measure of justice in that Jefferson County courtroom.

The offending banks had the misfortune of having their conduct fall under the purview of Judge Wortham. In a blistering opinion, he said “Bank of America has harassed Plaintiff and wrecked Plaintiff’s quality of life through daily unwarranted phone calls (and) default notices” and said attorneys for the bank should have known their most recent foreclosure attempt was “groundless and brought in bad faith or groundless and brought for purposes of harassment.”

Finding Bank of America’s actions in this case constituted a “conscious disregard, a conscious indifference and a contempt for the rights of Trudie Crutchfield,” Judge Wortham assessed sanctions of $300,000, payable within 30 days – and warned the bank of even more dire consequences if they continued to harass her.

It should come as no surprise that Wortham is protective of the rights of ordinary people. This son of Beaumont is one himself.

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Bob Wortham was born Sept. 8, 1947, the only child of the late Glenn and Lauretta Wortham. His mother was a collection agent for an insurance company during World War II. His father was a merchant marine who later gained employment with Magnolia Refinery in Beaumont.

Wortham worked from the age of 12 and recalled his first summer job for an oil distributer: “I’d clean up the warehouses and clean the potties. Sometimes, I’d ride on trucks to help fill them with gasoline.”

He graduated from Beaumont High School and then enrolled at Lamar. After his last final exam – “the very next day,” Wortham said – “I shipped out on a Mobil Oil tanker, the Eclipse.”

The tanker went from Venezuela to New England picking up high sulfur oil and transporting it to refineries. He did this for 6 months working 4-6 hours of overtime daily and working other people’s shifts. Wortham planned to save enough money during his time on the tanker to pay for law school. He sent all of his money, minus $20 for each shore leave, to his mother, who then deposited his wages into the Jefferson Savings and Loan. Once he was off the tanker and installed at Baylor Law School, Lauretta Wortham withdrew $300 from savings at the end of every month and placed it in Bob’s checking account so that he could cover his monthly expenses.

After law school, he was hired as a beginning prosecutor by the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office – the same one he now seeks to lead.

At age 31, Wortham was summoned to Austin by Gov. Bill Clements, who appointed him to an unexpired term as judge of the 60th District Court. Melvin Combs, the previous judge, had died after a long illness. Because of Combs’ illness, the court had a long backlog. In seven months, Wortham moved the court from having the most cases to having the second-fewest. His record of keeping his docket moving continues to this day.

In 2007, he was honored with the endowment of the Southeast Texas Legends – Judge Bob Wortham Scholarship to assist under-served individuals at his alma mater, Lamar University. The Southeast Texas Legends scholarships – each an endowment of $100,000 – are made possible by a gift from the Beaumont Foundation of America, a nonprofit corporation that seeks to expand, enhance and strengthen opportunities for students who are most in need of assistance.

Wortham and his wife, the former Karen Guzardo, have four adult children and six grandchildren. His son Baylor is an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Beaumont.

He and Karen continue to give to numerous local charities through the Karen and Bob Wortham Charitable Foundation.

At Wortham’s other alma mater – Baylor – he and Karen established a fund to help people who want to be lawyers but don’t have the financial resources to attend law school. They also support an annual trial competition, awarding $5,000 to the winning team.

Wortham is also known for his many years as a high school and college football official, starting in 1976. 

“It was a wonderful experience,” he said. “I think the coaches felt I gave them a fair game.”

In the end, Bob Wortham is a citizen and public servant who has made his mark on our community – and he’s not done yet.

“I try to treat other people the way I want to be treated,” he said. “If someone needs help and I have the ability to help them, I try to do so. I also try to come up with ideas on how people can help themselves. The Lord has blessed me, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my blessings.”

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