Chicago’s park district CEO resigned, but critics want more changes to address sex abuse scandal

“We know that sexual abuse is endemic at the park district and to fully remove it, we need to go through and clean up the whole system at the park district,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack.

Chicago no lifeguard sign
Welles Pool in Lincoln Square is part of Chicago Park District. City Council members and ex-lifeguards say they want more reforms at the agency due to a widespread sex abuse scandal. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago no lifeguard sign
Welles Pool in Lincoln Square is part of Chicago Park District. City Council members and ex-lifeguards say they want more reforms at the agency due to a widespread sex abuse scandal. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago’s park district CEO resigned, but critics want more changes to address sex abuse scandal

“We know that sexual abuse is endemic at the park district and to fully remove it, we need to go through and clean up the whole system at the park district,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack.

The weekend resignation of longtime Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly was just the first step toward adequately addressing the growing sex abuse scandal among lifeguards at public beaches and pools, according to City Council members and ex-lifeguards who pushed for Kelly’s departure.

After Mayor Lori Lightfoot demanded Kelly’s firing on Saturday and he quickly responded by quitting, Park District Board President Avis LaVelle said the taxpayer-funded agency’s leaders would work quickly to find a temporary replacement. Kelly had led the park district for more than a decade and was paid $230,000 a year.

In a statement, LaVelle said, “In the coming days, the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners will move forward in consultation with Mayor Lori Lightfoot to appoint an interim CEO to give a heightened level of attention to the issues and concerns confronting the Chicago Park District. We consider this our highest priority.”

But influential Ald. Scott Waguespack of the 32nd Ward, said he did not think LaVelle should get the chance to lead the effort to replace Kelly because she and the entire board also should resign over the lifeguard abuse scandal.

“I think keeping the same board members is problematic, especially the board president who essentially allowed a lot of this to happen and didn’t do the right oversight,” said Waguespack, who is chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee and last month became the first member of the Council to call for Kelly’s resignation.

On Sunday, Waguespack told WBEZ he had already given mayoral aides a list of people who he thought should be brought in to help enact real reforms. He said Kelly’s departure was merely “the tip of the iceberg.”

“We know that sexual abuse is endemic at the park district and to fully remove it, we need to go through and clean up the whole system at the park district,” he said. “That’s going to include a lot more people being gone at the park district.”

He added, “nobody knows how deep this goes.”

And Waguespack called for bringing back former Park District Deputy Inspector General Nathan Kipp, who had been the lead investigator in the probe until he was suspended without explanation in August.

Kipp protested his suspension, alleging that top park district officials interfered in the probe in an effort to minimize the wrongdoing in the lifeguarding corps. And Kipp’s boss, then-Inspector General Elaine Little, fired him on the same day he spoke out.

But Little quit a few weeks later– hours after WBEZ reported that she had resigned from a previous position at the Cook County juvenile jail while she herself was facing an “extensive” probe for “alleged conflicts and wrongdoing” as the facility’s director of investigations.

Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd Ward, said Kelly’s resignation was “a first step and there’s a lot more to be done.”

But unlike Waguespack, Smith stopped short of calling for the immediate replacement of LaVelle and the other members of the Park District Board, who are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council.

“I don’t think that the investigations should conclude until everyone who is accountable has been identified and disciplined,” she said. “I think that it has to be determined how much members of the board participated or failed to investigate this matter. But there certainly needs to be a significant housecleaning at the Chicago Park District.”

“Getting justice done for all these girls”

In April, WBEZ first reported on the inspector general’s investigation into lifeguard abuse. At that point, the probe already had dragged on in secret for more than a year. Documents obtained by the station show investigators were looking into allegations of sexual harassment, abuse, assault and other misconduct against dozens of employees in the Park District’s Aquatics Department.

WBEZ’s subsequent investigation would reveal complaints of endemic sexual misconduct against lifeguards – some of them underage girls – going back decades. The station is suing the park district and Lightfoot’s office after they refused to release government records relating to the scandal, including communications involving Kelly and LaVelle.

Four senior lifeguards have been forced from their jobs after being accused of serious sexual misconduct. The latest case involved the resignation last week of a male supervisor at Humboldt Park. He was accused of sexual misconduct against a 16-year-old female lifeguard when he was 31, a source familiar with the case told WBEZ.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office is also conducting an investigation, assigning specialists in sex crimes and public corruption to the park district case in August. Foxx not only is investigating the alleged sex crimes themselves, but also the park district’s official response to the allegations for any potential “obstruction, witness tampering, concealment of criminal conduct and official misconduct of Park District employees and members of the Board.”

After the initial whistleblowers in the scandal called for him to resign in August, Kelly said he would not do so and would lead reform efforts. But last week, a growing number of aldermen called for him to go.

Smith said the situation in the lifeguarding corps was “just terrible,” adding that officials must “really root out all the problems and practices until there is a new culture at the park district for lifeguards and everybody who works at the park district.”

Julie Tortorich was among more than a dozen former lifeguards who stepped forward and spoke to WBEZ about their experiences at the city’s beaches and pools after the station revealed the internal probe at the park district in the spring.

Now 61, Tortorich said she was sexually attacked twice by a supervisor when she worked as a teenage lifeguard for the park district in the 1970s.

“With regards to Mr. Kelly’s resignation, it was too little too late,” she told WBEZ Sunday. “He displayed absolutely no integrity whatsoever in following through on this important matter to the women lifeguards of Chicago.

“I’m glad he’s out of his position, and now let’s move forward with getting justice done for all of these girls.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.