Politics & Government

Parole board chairman, member fight over door color

Chairman Verman Winburn, left, is "ashamed" to talk about the argument. Thomas Whetstone said he should have been more circumspect.
Chairman Verman Winburn, left, is "ashamed" to talk about the argument. Thomas Whetstone said he should have been more circumspect.

Kentucky Parole Board Chairman Verman Winburn fought board member Thomas Whetstone in their Frankfort headquarters last month after arguing about whether Whetstone, who had painted his office door red, was going to repaint it.

The Dec. 27 altercation led to a sprained wrist for Whetstone, a workers compensation claim against the state and a recommendation that both board members get counseling, according to interviews and public records.

The Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, where the board is based, investigated the fight after Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown learned about it.

It is unclear why Whetstone painted his door red and removed the lock in October. Building managers had asked Winburn about it. When Winburn confronted Whetstone, a profanity-laced argument ensued.

The nine-member parole board, which decides whether prison inmates are ready for early release, is appointed by the governor. Gov. Steve Beshear named Winburn and Whetstone to their current positions.

Speaking to cabinet investigator Steven Potts, Winburn and Whetstone blamed each other for provoking the violence. They did agree Whetstone pushed Winburn in the chest, and Winburn grabbed Whetstone's right hand and twisted it.

"Dr. Whetstone was actually raised up onto his toes by the force applied by Mr. Winburn. Dr. Whetstone estimated (that) Mr. Winburn twisted his arm for five to 10 seconds," Potts wrote. "Dr. Whetstone has a severely sprained wrist which he is currently treating with an Ace bandage, ice and ibuprofen."

Whetstone filed a workers comp claim the day after the fight. He stated in his injury report Winburn "became physically confrontational and assaulted me."

In follow-up e-mails to state officials, Whetstone expressed concern about the confidentiality of his claim. When one official told him his claim would trigger an investigation, Whetstone said he had provided more information about the incident than he intended to.

"I think I should have been a bit more circumspect regarding the cause of the injury," Whetstone wrote to a Justice Cabinet official on Jan. 3. "Not fabricating, but being more general in terminology. My bad, lesson learned that I hope will never be needed."

Whetstone dropped his claim on Jan. 4. "I find, upon examination, that there will be no need for the provided services," he wrote in an e-mail.

On Jan. 6, in response to the fight, Brown gave Winburn and Whetstone identical, hand-written notes suggesting they seek counseling through the state's employee assistance program. Brown included a one-page handout for the program.

"I suggest that you take advantage of this resource as soon as possible," Brown wrote to the men.

In an interview, Winburn confirmed the fight and said he followed Brown's advice to seek counseling through the program. Winburn said he considers the matter closed.

"I'm really ashamed to even talk about it," said Winburn, a former probation and parole district supervisor first appointed to the board in 1997, who makes $67,811 a year. "We dealt with it less than an hour later, and we were friends again after an apology."

Whetstone declined through the cabinet to comment. A criminal-justice consultant and former police sergeant, Whetstone makes about $63,000 a year and joined the board in 2009.

Beshear plans to take no action against his appointees, spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said.

"Secretary Brown notified the governor about the incident between Mr. Winburn and Mr. Whetstone and advised that he had recommended counseling," Richardson said. "We expect Secretary Brown will continue to monitor any other issues related to the board and handle them accordingly."

The parole board's code of ethics states that board members "shall refrain from engaging in any conduct which offends the dignity or decorum of the board."

Colleagues say Winburn was involved in another altercation with a fellow board member last year.

In May 2010, Winburn and then-board member Joey Stanton got into a heated disagreement while dining with colleagues at The Lady and Sons, a Savannah, Ga., restaurant owned by celebrity chef Paula Deen, then-board member Patricia Turpin said this week.

The board members were in Savannah attending the annual conference of the Association of Paroling Authorities International.

"There was a scuffle between Mr. Winburn and Mr. Stanton. Mr. Winburn picked a knife up off the table," Turpin said.

Winburn did not use the knife, and nobody was hurt, Turpin said.

"They finally calmed down," Turpin said. "I separated the two of them. It was resolved when they both kind of apologized to each other. They had been playing around with each other or something, and it just got out of hand."

In a brief interview this week, Stanton said his term on the board expired after the Savannah incident and he preferred not to discuss it. Winburn declined through the cabinet to confirm or comment on the earlier episode.

The Justice Cabinet is unaware of the out-of-state incident, spokeswoman Jennifer Brislin said.

The parole board plays a big role in sweeping penal code changes being proposed for the 2011 General Assembly, which resumes Tuesday. Lawmakers are looking for ways to safely reduce the state's prison population.

Rep. Kelly Flood, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said she was disturbed to hear about altercations between parole board members.

"This is a very serious matter," said Flood, D-Lexington.

"Two things come to mind. One, it's important for me to know that Secretary Brown is aware of any problematic employee who is not behaving properly, especially if he's in a position of importance and influence," Flood said.

"Two, we must have a parole board known for its maturity and integrity, because those are the qualities they're looking for in the inmates they're deciding whether to release."

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