Chicago Alderman Calls Firing Of Park District Investigator ‘Direct Retaliation’

Scott Waguespack
Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, attends a City Council meeting at City Hall on Sept. 18, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Scott Waguespack
Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, attends a City Council meeting at City Hall on Sept. 18, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Alderman Calls Firing Of Park District Investigator ‘Direct Retaliation’

Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, has criticized the recent firing of a top Chicago Park District investigator amid a long-running, internal probe into allegations of widespread sexual violence against lifeguards at the city’s public beaches and pools.

At a City Council committee meeting on Thursday, Waguespack said it amounted to “direct retaliation” when the park district fired Nathan Kipp, the deputy inspector general who spent 16 months investigating the explosive allegations from dozens of lifeguards, including underage girls.

The inspector general, Elaine Little, sent Kipp a termination letter on Aug. 19 — the same day Kipp publicly alleged that top park district officials obstructed what’s supposed to be an independent investigation.

Waguespack has been the most vocal of the relatively small number of Council members who have commented on the scandal at the park district.

“When we look at the retaliation against the deputy inspector general most recently — that is direct retaliation, which is prohibited,” Waguespack said at a meeting to confirm two nominees to join the park district board.

Waguespack said the firing of Kipp led him to believe the inspector general’s investigation was “suspect.”

In a statement after his firing, Kipp wrote, “The dozens of professed survivors of sex crimes who have bravely come forward to the [park district’s inspector general] deserve a fair, thorough, and unbiased investigation.”

And in an interview with WBEZ, Kipp said he believed park district leaders were “trying to sweep anything that they find under the rug” by taking him off a case he was pursuing aggressively.

But Little and park district officials have denied Kipp’s allegations, saying they are conducting a robust probe. And Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has dodged questions about Kipp and indicated that she was content to wait for the inspector general’s office to complete the probe and report on its findings.

Lightfoot also has opposed a proposal from Waguespack and Ald. Michele Smith to recruit City Hall’s own inspector general to join the park district investigation, which began in March 2020 and continued in secret until WBEZ reported on it in April.

According to confidential documents obtained by WBEZ, the “broad investigation” is examining complaints that workers at beaches and pools regularly committed “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence, and other criminal acts,” sometimes against minors.

On Thursday, Waguespack told the two nominees to the parks board that they have more power than aldermen to influence the sexual misconduct scandal. The park district operates separately from city government, but park district leaders are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council.

“I just hope that you would take on this task for those of us who cannot take it on, for those victims who cannot take it on,” Waguespack said. “Chicago needs to change that culture in the park district.”

The investigation began last year with two allegations from young women who worked as lifeguards for the park district. One of the women wrote to the park district’s chief executive and superintendent, Michael Kelly, in February 2020, alleging “extreme abuse from the other lifeguards” at Oak Street Beach.

But the inspector general’s probe did not begin until the following month, after another woman wrote to Lightfoot’s office, and the mayor shared that complaint with Kelly.

Both whistleblowers have expressed their disappointment with Lightfoot and park District leaders and called for Kelly’s firing in recent interviews with WBEZ.

“These are very important reports that are coming out, starting out with WBEZ,” Waguespack said. “This affects men and women throughout the Park District. It’s been going on for decades. …People need to be held accountable.”

Waguespack said he has reviewed the Park District’s sexual harassment policy and found “it is not very robust” and should be changed.

“I think that’s a job you guys can take on earlier in your tenure,” Waguespack — who is chairman of the Council’s Finance Committee — told the two nominees.

He told the two that it should be a high priority for the Park District board to put “a strong system in place to stop retaliation, to stop sexual harassment of any kind in this city, and put an end to it.”

Another City Council member, Maria Hadden, said constituents in her 49th Ward “have a lot of concerns about what we’re reading in the news and I think a lot of questions.”

Hadden told the two parks board nominees she hoped “we get to hear from you guys soon and get some more understanding on the issue around the sexual harassment allegations and what’s been happening around the inspector general’s office.”

But Hadden also said she was “glad to hear there’s an independent report coming out.”

Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, also questioned the nominees about the misconduct scandal and the firing of Kipp.

One of the nominees, Modesto Valle, replied, “I don’t know the details.” But Valle added that he felt the park district board was obligated to create a “safe environment” for parks users and the district’s own employees.

Valle is the CEO of the Center on Halsted, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community group.

The other nominee, Myetie Hamilton, is a former high-ranking Chicago Public Schools official. She said she wanted the park district to deal with the allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and assault with transparency.

WBEZ has sued the park district to challenge officials’ refusal to provide many public documents pertaining to the issue. The case is pending in Cook County Circuit Court.

Both nominations for the park district board received unanimous approval at Thursday’s council committee hearing, and will next need approval from the full City Council.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Mariah Woelfel covers city government.