Worthy principles Wayne County prosecutor gives some ethical guideposts for elected officials


By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

The Cooley Law School Center for Ethics, Service and Professionalism didn't have to look far for its featured speaker on "How does a public official stand up to intense political pressure and do the right thing?" She was right in their backyard.

The Center, along with the Oakland County Bar Association, called on Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy to address the subject. Not only for her successful 2008 prosecution of ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick and his former Chief of Staff Christine Beatty, but for her entire body of work over the years, which featured honor, integrity and good character, a blueprint for any elected official.

From the start of her presentation, to the end of a short question-and-answer session, Worthy held the crowd captive, mixing in her upbringing, her professional background in law, and raising a daughter as a single mother, all in a folksy, conversational style.

But the real meat of her speech came from twelve principles Worthy believes public officials should follow to maintain integrity and honor. And most of that, Worthy said she learned growing up the daughter of an Army colonel and West Point graduate.

"To say that my life was rigid is probably an understatement," she said. "My father was very much law and order...and that's how I grew up."

She said those life-lessons from her parents remained with her as she grew up, even hearing their voices in her head if she even thought of doing anything wrong.

"Everything you really learned about your life that you're going to need the rest of your life you learned in kindergarten," she said. And from the lessons she learned from her parents.

Worthy said those principles guided her throughout her life. And her career has been well documented. After receiving her undergraduate degree in economics and political science from the University of Michigan, and a law degree from the University of Notre Dame School of Law, she became an assistant Wayne County Prosecutor in 1984, served nine years as a judge on what is now the Wayne County Circuit Court, and in 2004 became first female and first African-American to be elected Wayne County Prosecutor.

Worthy said she stepped down as judge to run for prosecutor because she "didn't like what was going on in the Prosecutor's office."

One of the first principles Worthy believes in is for an elected official to be unafraid to make unpopular decisions. In the Kilpatrick case, or any case, if a crime is committed, "we will prosecute you."

And the case to prosecute Kilpatrick was "an extremely unpopular decision," she said. Worthy was also up for election that year, but chose to go forward with charges despite the pressures she faced. Worthy said she also took the bold step of dropping charges against a teen accused of killing a woman by throwing a rock off a freeway when she was an assistant prosecutor. That decision caused public outrage, but she said it was the right thing to do.

In that case, the Kilpatrick case, or any case, Worthy said public or political pressures should not sway one from doing the right thing. "You cannot let yourself bend to the whim of either public opinion, or of people of power."

Another principle Worthy lives by is do not follow the money, in terms of being an elected official. She said although elected officials are offered all kinds of things, no one has ever offered her a bribe -- "I guess they're afraid to," she said, earning a laugh from the audience.

Another credo she adheres to is, don't touch the money. Worthy said she keeps far away from any financial dealings for herself, assigning the signing of checks to others in her campaign.

Another way to avoid the pitfalls of the pressure of being an elected official is to not define yourself by your title, and use it to your advantage. "I see that a lot in politics, unfortunately," she said.

Worthy said another mistake elected officials commit is to make decisions based on public pressures, or what the public thinks you should do.

Another no-no for public officials -- there are certain places you cannot go, and certain things you cannot do. Worthy said she stays out of bars and casinos. She recounted the story of a man, who, after being elected as a judge, decided he should stay out of strip clubs in the future.

Worthy also said elected officials should surround themselves with people who are "not afraid to tell you no" or "kick your butt" if necessary. Worthy said she "likes to speak her mind" and can occasionally be "curt," but has people around to filter things to keep her out of trouble.

Finally, Worthy said many good people shy away from public office because of the level of scrutiny they face. An official should not be afraid to have every aspect of their life exposed, she said.

During a brief question and answer session with the audience, which included several judges, Worthy said she has seen people run for judgeships that were "functionally incompetent" and "an absolute disgrace" to their profession, but got the appointment through a political process that rewarded those chosen. She said she wanted to be "elected, not selected," and has done that.

She told young aspiring lawyers in the crowd to "stick to your guns and remain ethical."

Worthy said she balances her job with being a single parent carefully. "It's all about scheduling," she said, but admits she "would interrupt just about anything" to take a call from her daughter" and urged the audience to stop whatever you are doing and pay attention to their children.

Worthy also said she has been urged to run for state Attorney General -- "And I think I could win and do a good job" -- but decided the timing is not right because her daughter needs her attention right now, something that would be impossible if she were campaigning around the state.

She also admitted becoming prosecutor was not her goal. "I'm not sure I knew what a prosecutor was," Worthy said. Her young aspirations were to become a good lawyer, and then a judge. At one time Worthy entertained thoughts of becoming an in-house council at a hospital, or as a first amendment advocate at a newspaper.

Now, she said being prosecutor is "the best work I can do," and while she would never become a defense attorney, "I could be very wealthy" if that was her chosen path.

But she urged the students that, whatever field of law they enter, do it with passion and reminded them that the most important thing lawyer has is their reputation.

Cooley's Center for Ethics, Service and Professionalism series brings nationally and locally recognized speakers to each campus each term to talk to students, faculty and staff on issues, trials and lawsuits touching on ethical and professional matters.

Heather Spielmaker, director of the Center, said the program began in 2006 and has featured circuit court judges, Appellate judges and even a state Supreme Court Justice in the past. The Worthy speech attracted over 100 people to the Auburn Hills campus, and was also broadcast to its Ann Arbor, Lansing and Grand Rapid campuses.

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Ed Ewell was instrumental in bringing Worthy to Cooley this term. Jennifer Grieco, the president-elect of the Oakland County Bar Association, said her organization is proud of the partnership they've developed with Cooley.

Cooley Dean John Nussbaumer said Worthy exemplified integrity by showing it "when everybody was watching" in the Kilpatrick case.

Dean Amy Timmer, who heads up the Center at Cooley, said Worthy "is one of my heroes."

She said the Center seeks speakers who "display integrity and character" and those who will "inspire our students to be brave in the face of danger, to be willing to take unpopular positions when they are right, to stand up for those who have been wronged, and to always seek justice."

"Kym Worthy epitomizes that standard," Timmer said. In the Kilpatrick prosecution, Timmer said Worthy "bravely stood up for what was right in the face of a powerful, corrupt machine that could have consumed or intimidated a lesser person."

Worthy said she knew she wanted to be a lawyer as early as the 6th grade, and it has taken a lot of hard work to get to where she is, but warned that it only takes "a short time to fall."

"You can lose it in a second" by not recognizing "right is right, and wrong is wrong," Worthy said. She urged those who seek office to "fall back, always, to what you were taught. And much of that is learned by kindergarten."

Published: Tue, Mar 23, 2010