State Attorney Investigates Chicago Lifeguard Abuse


Cook County State Attorney’s Office Kim Foxx has opened an investigation into the Chicago Park District’s handling of allegations of widespread sexual violence against lifeguards at the city’s beaches and public swimming pools, according to documents obtained Thursday by WBEZ.

In a letter to park district officials nearly a month ago, Foxx informed them that prosecutors have started investigating allegations of “certain criminal conduct, including, but not limited to assaults. and past and present sexual harassment, obstruction, witness tampering, cover-up of criminal acts. official conduct and misconduct of Park District employees and members of the Board of Directors.

Foxx wrote that his office was acting on the basis of information prosecutors received from Chicago City Government Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.

“We are in the process of evaluating the validity of the complaints,” Foxx said. “The office is committed to conducting careful and thorough assessments of these complaints. “

Foxx’s letter was sent on August 19 – the same day the park’s deputy district inspector general, Nathan Kipp, publicly accused top park district officials. to try to “hinder and hinder” a long-standing, extensive internal investigation of park supervisors preying on young female rescuers, including minors.

Park District Inspector General Elaine Little sent Kipp a dismissal letter that day, but gave no reason to fire him.

Then Wednesday, Little resigned of his post of Inspector General. It was after WBEZ reported that Little herself was the subject of a one-year ‘in-depth’ investigation in “alleged conflict and wrongdoing” which only ended when she resigned from her previous job at Cook County Juvenile Prison.

After previously defending Little, Lightfoot said Wednesday her resignation was appropriate, calling it necessary for the integrity of the rescuer’s investigation. And Lightfoot said she believes there should be an investigation by the state attorney, if it isn’t already underway.

Now emails from Foxx to the park district indicate that prosecutors have already looked at the park district investigation itself – and the reaction to the scandal from agency executives, who are chosen by the mayor.

The letter was addressed to the park district board chair, Avis LaVelle, and the agency’s longtime CEO and CEO, Michael Kelly. Both were named by Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel.

Park district officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Foxx’s office provided a copy of the letter in response to a request for open files from WBEZ. His office on Thursday declined to comment on the investigation.

It is not known what information Ferguson received and passed on to the state prosecutor. But the park district has its own watchdog, which is said to be independent from park officials and began its investigation into sexual misconduct against lifeguards early last year.

The investigation started in March 2020

The Park District Inspector General’s investigation began with two complaints from young women who were lifeguards and sent letters of denunciation to Lightfoot and Kelly, who are paid $ 230,000 a year and have held the position since 2011 .

The Park District investigation quickly turned into what investigators called a “broad” examination of allegations that dozens of pool and beach workers in the city routinely committed “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence and other criminal acts ”- sometimes against minors.

Confidential reports obtained by WBEZ show that park district investigators were investigating specific incidents “as well as threats of retaliation made by supervisors and peers to prevent park district rescuers from reporting such misconduct.”

The Inspector General’s office also wrote that it was investigating “allegedly toxic and dangerous work environments at several beaches and aquatic centers in the Park District” and “unacceptable workplace behaviors that department management aquatic did not resolve ”.

Earlier this year, the Inspector General’s office gathered evidence to corroborate the accusations against three veteran rescuers – including an incident involving the alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of a 16-year-old girl who worked on a beach on the north side. No one has been criminally charged in connection with the investigation, although the park district watchdog said at the time that his investigation was “broad, comprehensive and solid”, with other reports to to come.

Probe interference complaint

But Kipp, the former deputy inspector general, said last month that senior park district officials interfered with the investigation and sought to bring it to a quick conclusion that would downplay what had happened. He said he made the statements after being unfairly removed from the investigation, which he had been conducting for about 16 months.

At the time, Kipp also called on the public prosecutor to open his own investigation. He argued that this would be the only way for victims and the public to have confidence that the case was being handled appropriately at this stage.

Kipp boss Little and district park officials have denied his claims and said the watchdog office is operating independently – as it is supposed to.

Little said at the time that the investigation was progressing well and predicted it would lead to justice for victims of sexual abuse and widespread reform throughout the park district.

Little did not say why Kipp was fired, and he said he was disciplined unfairly.

Prior to his suspension and dismissal last month, Kipp had no notes on his file, according to a copy of his personnel file provided to WBEZ by park officials in response to a request for open cases.

Records also show that the park district granted Kipp a raise of $ 10,000 in October, six months after he was hired as deputy inspector general.

On Thursday, Kipp said he wanted to “thank Kim Foxx for asking his office to take this important step.”

In a statement, Kipp said that an independent criminal investigation “is a necessary step to expose and rectify the alleged criminal activity that apparently exists in the Park District Beaches and Pools Unit, as well as alleged wrongdoing. of the administration and council of district commissioners “.

In an interview last month with WBEZ, Kipp said the investigation “really should get to the top” of the park district hierarchy.

“Implicit intimidation” by the CEO of the parks?

The park district’s internal investigation went on in secret for over a year, until WBEZ revealed the existence of the investigation in April.

Since then, many female ex-lifeguards have come forward to speak to the resort about what they have described as a misogynistic and abusive work culture on the city’s lakefront and in Chicago’s public swimming pools since the 1970s. .

The park district is responsible for dozens of beaches and swimming pools. Some lifeguards work year round, but many others are hired seasonally and are only 15 years old at the start of summer.

Kelly, the park district general manager, received the first complaint of “extreme abuse” in North Avenue Beach from a 17-year-old former lifeguard at the time on February 7, 2020.

The park chief immediately promised the young girl that he would send her a very detailed 11-page report on the misconduct of the rescuers to the Inspector General’s office for a full investigation.

But Kelly didn’t do that for 41 days. And he only forwarded the initial report to the Inspector General after a second woman sent a separate complaint to Lightfoot, and his assistants relayed those allegations to the Park District.

The complainant, now 19, told WBEZ that Kelly contacted her family after news of the investigation became public, telling them he was under great pressure and asking him to let her know if she was. was learning more about the investigation process.

Kipp, the former deputy inspector general, said there was “certainly an implicit intimidating factor” in Kelly’s conversation with the young woman.

The second whistleblower, the woman who wrote to Lightfoot, said park district “managers” ignored and even made fun of her allegations of sexual assault at the age of 17 by a another senior employee, so she feared retaliation and did not officially report the incident.

She also said the park district was teeming with everything “from sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape,” according to the records.

“I have both heard and witnessed more horrific stories about employee victims of sexual violence: employees groping, individuals forced to kiss, managers giving unwanted attention to female employees,” a- she writes.

And she alleged that it was “very difficult for a report to be escalated” when misconduct was reported, and perpetrators often ended up with only “slight” consequences.

The two initial whistleblowers told WBEZ last month that they were deeply disappointed with Lightfoot’s handling of the scandal and believed the mayor should fire Kelly.

External law firm to complete the investigation

Emanuel also chose park district board chair LaVelle, who was a high-ranking aide to another former mayor, Richard M. Daley. LaVelle owns a public relations firm whose clients include many local government agencies and private dealers who take advantage of the city’s parking meter system and Chicago Skyway toll road.

LaVelle said this week that the Park District would hire an outside law firm to complete the Inspector General’s investigation.

And Kelly has repeatedly defended her handling of allegations of sexual abuse in recent weeks. He held a press conference on a south side beach last month to announce disciplinary action against employees, including the suspensions of two officials who watched over the pools and the beaches.

The park district is responsible for dozens of beaches and swimming pools. Some lifeguards work year round, but many others are hired seasonally and are only 15 years old at the start of summer.

The agency’s tiny Inspector General’s office had sought more resources to investigate what Little described in July as an unprecedented investigation into lifeguard abuse.

But Lightfoot rejected a proposal of two aldermen who called on the city hall inspector general to help the park district investigation, with the mayor saying she was confident the parks investigators had everything they needed to complete the job as quickly as possible.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative journalist in the Government and Politics team at WBEZ. Follow him on twitter @dmihalopoulos.

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