Top two officials at state Juvenile Justice Authority fired, senator says

TOPEKA – Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority Commissioner Curtis L. Whitten and Deputy Commissioner Dennis Casarona were fired today, The Eagle has learned.

Gov. Sam Brownback appointed Terri Williams, currently the deputy secretary of community and field services in the Kansas Department of Corrections, to serve as acting commissioner, Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag confirmed this evening.

Jones-Sontag said she could not confirm whether Whitten, a Wichita businessman, and Casarona were fired because it is a personnel issue.

But Sen. Dick Kelsey, a Republican from Goddard familiar with the justice authority, said Whitten and Casarona were fired during a phone call today and weren’t given justification.

Whitten confirmed that he was fired over the phone.

"I'm disappointed," he said. "I thought I was doing a great job."

Whitten said that the authority didn't have any serious issues and that his track record shows that he is compassionate and committed to the authority and Brownback.

"I didn't come up to Topeka to be a politician," he said. "I believe that young people need an opportunity to be successful and need an advocate for them to be successful."

Whitten said he felt Casarona was also doing a great job and that he isn't aware of any issues with Casarona's work.

"He served me well and I believe he served the state of Kansas well," he said.

Casarona said that he was off work today and that a human resources director called him and let him go. But he declined to comment further. "I need a little time," he said.

Kelsey said he has known Casarona for 14 years and that he is a “total professional” who did a great job.

“I believe the firings were very unfortunate, were handled in a very poor manner, and it’s going to have long-term repercussions on the operation of JJA, which has been one of the better operations here of the agencies,” Kelsey said.

“They weren’t even given the opportunity to come in and present their case and discuss … what the concerns were,” he said. “I don’t think you handle people like that.”

“I don’t understand it,” Kelsey said.

“You’re talking about a Cabinet-level person,” he said. “To be fired on the phone by someone down the chain. That’s not my view of how you do business.”

Brownback appointed Whitten on Jan. 7, 2011. Whitten was a member and former chairman of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and co-chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Racial Profiling.

In December 2010, The Eagle reported an FBI investigation into misspending involving those two panels and the Kansas Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission.

Whitten denied any involvement. Brownback said his staff had investigated and found Whitten blameless in the spending.

Whitten said today that the FBI interviewed him early in its investigation into spending issues at the African American Affairs Commission but has not talked to him since then.

Whitten officially started as authority commissioner on Jan. 18, 2011, and he had a salary of $105,000, according to the governor’s office.

Casarona was hired in July 2002 and became deputy commissioner in 2004. His salary was $83,020.