Wortham honored with Legends Scholarship at Lamar

The SE Texas Record Oct. 3, 2007, 5:34am

Judge Bob Wortham

Press release from Lamar University

Lamar University and the Beaumont Foundation of America have announced the eighth of nine Southeast Texas Legends Scholarships – this one honoring Judge Bob Wortham, who, throughout his distinguished career as a federal prosecutor, district judge and private attorney, has been known as an innovator and legal pioneer whose landmark cases have had national impact.

Wortham, now judge of 58th District Court in Jefferson County, served 12 years as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas before becoming a partner in the Reaud, Morgan and Quinn Law Firm. He began his career as a Jefferson County assistant district attorney and, at age 31, was appointed to serve an unexpired term as judge of 60th District Court – the youngest district judge in the state.

A Beaumont native and Lamar graduate, Wortham is a philanthropist whose generosity has touched scores of individuals and organizations.

"Bob Wortham has been described as a 'force of nature' – a man motivated by service and known for his fairness, his high goals, his innovative achievements and his ability to make others feel valued," Lamar University President James Simmons said in announcing the scholarship. "We are proud of Bob, as an outstanding alumnus of this university and for his many contributions to his profession and to society."

Simmons' remarks came at a ceremony and news conference Tuesday, Oct. 2, in the University Reception Center of the Mary and John Gray Library. The Southeast Texas Legends-Judge Bob Wortham Scholarship will assist under-served individuals who attend 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 non-profit corporation that seeks to expand, enhance and strengthen opportunities for students who are most in need of assistance. Scholarships are being awarded starting this fall.

"It is a wonderful tribute to Lamar that this scholarship be instituted in Bob's name, so that others will be inspired by his spirit of goodness and accomplishment and that they will in turn lead and advance the ideals of America for others to enjoy," said Jefferson County Criminal District Court Judge John Stevens, a friend for 30 years and who served as Beaumont division chief and head of the criminal division for the Eastern District of Texas while Wortham was U.S. attorney.

Beaumont Lawyer Tom Kiehnhoff has been Wortham's colleague since 1990, first in the U.S. Attorney's Office and later in private practice.

"Bob is a force of nature," Kiehnhoff said. "He sets high goals for himself and pursues them. He's been a judge, a prosecutor and a lawyer. It's hard to do all those things right – and he's succeeded in every one of them. The tone he sets is conducive to feeling good about yourself and wanting to work hard. He knows how to make people feel valued."

Among the U.S. 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. "He surrounded himself with good people," Kiehnhoff said.

Whether in the courtroom or in the community, he said, "Service is what motivates Bob. He's happiest when he's helping the public."

Responding to the Legends Scholarship, Wortham said: "When I was informed this was going to happen, my first thought was I wasn't worthy of such a wonderful honor. But this scholarship goes along with my philosophy of helping people. This money will help young people who may not have opportunities to go to college otherwise. I feel blessed to have this honor bestowed on me. It's a humbling experience."

The length of his term as U.S. attorney is considered "extraordinary," he said.

Highlights of Wortham's career include successful prosecution of 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; cases that brought about changes in the timeshare industry; enforcement of environmental laws; and bringing federal, state and local law enforcement agencies together in what became a national model. As a state district judge, he worked to assist other judges with caseloads and led in developing a prototype for court scheduling orders that are now standard.

"Now, Bob is sharing his vast knowledge, experience and fairness as a most worthy judge of the 58th District Court," Stevens said. "He is devoted to his family and friends. He is a most generous benefactor to needy individuals and causes. He is committed to fairness to all and justice toward those deserving of it.

"Most importantly," said Stevens, "Bob is devoted to helping to make his community a better place. We are blessed that Bob Wortham has shared with us his life, his dreams and his blessings."

Wortham is the only child of the late Glenn and Lauretta Wortham, born Sept. 8, 1947. His mother was from Wisconsin, and the two met in Georgia after Glenn returned to his native state from World War II. Glenn Wortham came to Texas working on ships for Magnolia Refinery (now ExxonMobil). He was a port captain for Magnolia and for Esso, another forerunner of ExxonMobil.

Wortham and the former Karen Guzardo have been married 22 years and have four children: R.J., who works at Huntsman Corp.; Baylor, a prosecutor in the Jefferson County district attorney's office; Brittney, a student at Baylor; and Zack, a junior and football player at Monsignor Kelly High School.

Wortham earned his degree in government in 1971 in the last graduating class from Lamar State College of Technology. He graduated from Baylor Law School in 1974.

"Lamar was a perfect fit. I found it a wonderful place to go to school. The professors were so enlightening they made you want to learn . . . I was proud I got into law school after going to Lamar."

Wortham decided at Lamar he wanted to be a lawyer.

After his last final exam – "the very next day," Wortham said, "I shipped out on a Mobil Oil tanker, the Eclipse. I got off it just before Christmas and started law school at Baylor in February. I had earned enough money to pay for law school."

Wortham has worked since he was 12 and got 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 kept on working, 80 hours a week in one job and, later as a laborer.

After law school, the Jefferson County district attorney's office hired Wortham as a beginning prosecutor. "I felt I had a wonderful opportunity there," he said.

His second day in the office, he volunteered to take on a case no one else wanted – a second-degree felony that had been reduced to a Class A misdemeanor without a plea bargain agreement. Wortham went to trial and secured a one-year jail term (of a possible two). He was disappointed, but the rest of the prosecutors, including his boss, then-District Attorney Tom Hanna, were impressed.

"Hanna heard about this new kid who tried a case and got a year to do, so he gave me a straight shot into the trial division, which was a fortunate break," said Wortham.

Wortham welcomed a new opportunity when he accepted an offer from Carl Waldman to join Waldman & Smallwood, where he remained until 1980. He had been at the firm four years when, "out of the blue," he got a call from the governor's office, asking him to be in Austin the next morning. The subject was appointment to an unexpired term in 60th District Court, whose judge, Melvin Combs, had just died after a long illness.

"'I'm just 31 years old, but I'll be more than happy to try,' I told him. They said, 'OK, we'll do some checking and call you.' That was a Wednesday. On Friday morning, as I was leaving to go to court, I got the call asking me if I could take over on Monday. I said, 'Sure.'"

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. He then took on the docket of 58th District Court on behalf of the ailing Judge Jack Brookshire. By that time, Brookshire had the most cases, but, in five months, Wortham moved its case load to fewer than that of the 60th District Court.

Another golden opportunity came Wortham's way with his appointment as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. Among highlights of his career is Wortham's successful drug-smuggling case against Denton rancher Rex Cauble and the "Cowboy mafia."

"Cauble was was one of the wealthiest men in Texas and had so much influence on both sides of the political fence that everybody thought he was untouchable," Wortham said. "He had not been indicted because it was considered political suicide to indict one of the richest men in Texas .

"I couldn't believe that just because he was politically powerful, he should not be held responsible. I went forward, even knowing that if I lost that case, it would have been the end of my political career."

After a month-long trial, the jury found Cauble guilty on all counts. Wortham was regarded as a hero in law enforcement. Besides resulting in the conviction, the case also made history as the first to successfully enforce the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), an anti-racketeering law that provides for the forfeiture of assets resulting from a criminal enterprise.

"It was the first application of the law – the first time a RICO case stood the test of a Supreme Court appeal. The law had been in existence for years and had never been tested," Wortham said. "It was appealed twice to the Supreme Court, and we won both times. After that, other law enforcement agencies were able to take the RICO statute and make claims."

Wortham also took on unscrupulous practices in the marketing of timeshares. "I was proud I was able to change an industry," he said. "The timeshare business used to have advertisements where they would lure people into coming for visits thinking they were getting cars, trips and money, when they would receive nothing. My prosecution changed that. In the course of my investigation, I concluded the industry had a wonderful product that it could sell it on its merits."

Other victories came in protection of the environment. "Environmental law was not being prosecuted at all, and I saw the need for it," Wortham said.

Outside the federal courtroom, Wortham pushed for cooperation among law enforcement agencies – and the result became a model for agencies across the country. He put together prosecutions built on joint investigations, vowing to create "the largest organization of federal, state and local agencies working together anywhere in the United States."

"We were the forerunners in doing this, and Washington was watching. Based on our program, the Department of Justice started the Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee, encouraging everyone to work together. The federal, state and local task forces had their embryo in Beaumont."

In November 2006, Jefferson County voters elected Wortham judge of 58th District Court, where he continues to effect change in the judicial system. Since he took office in January, he has tried more criminal cases than civil cases. His background in criminal law has enabled him to help the other judges move their dockets; he also serves as a back-up judge for family law cases.

Wortham's achievements have earned scores of honors, including: Outstanding Young Lawyer in Jefferson County, Chief Postal Inspector's Award, ATF's Arson Prosecutor of the Year Award, Drug Enforcement Exceptional Achievement Award, Better Business Bureau John L. Ball Award, Department of Justice Award for Outstanding Service, Department of Labor Award for Outstanding Prosecution and the Press Club of Southeast Texas' inaugural Newsmaker of the Year award.

He is a co-founder and former president of the 100 Club of Hardin and Jefferson Counties and contributes as a volunteer – and financially – to dozens of other community organizations, in part through the Karen and Bob Wortham Charitable Foundation Inc.

One cause close to Wortham's heart is the Triangle AIDS Network, which in 2004 honored him with its highest accolade, the Red Ribbon Hero Award, for his "untiring efforts and ongoing support on behalf of persons living with HIV/AIDS."

From the early days of the 20-year-old organization, Wortham has come forward to help make holidays brighter for families and support TAN's fund-raiser, Paint the Town Red. "He recruits people to his enthusiasm. For him, it's all about helping people," said a TAN spokesperson.

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."

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 says: "I try to treat other people the way I want to be treated. 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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