Lightfoot To Lifeguard Who Blew Whistle: ‘I Understand Her Passion And Her Anger’

Chicago Park District pool
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday she fully understood the “anger” from an ex-park district lifeguard who complained of being sexually attacked. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Park District pool
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday she fully understood the “anger” from an ex-park district lifeguard who complained of being sexually attacked. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Lightfoot To Lifeguard Who Blew Whistle: ‘I Understand Her Passion And Her Anger’

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday she fully understood the “anger” from an ex-park district lifeguard who complained of being sexually attacked.

But the mayor offered no apologies for how officials have managed the wide-ranging, internal investigation that the whistleblower sparked more than 17 months ago.

In an interview with WBEZ, the young woman — who filed a complaint with the mayor’s office in March 2020 — said she was “very disappointed” in Lightfoot and called on the mayor to fire Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly and the park district board’s politically-connected president, Avis LaVelle, over their handling of the ongoing probe.

Lightfoot dodged questions about whether she would dismiss the two top parks officials — both appointed by the mayor’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel.

But Lightfoot had a message for the whistleblower: “I have served in, unfortunately, many jobs as a woman of color where I have been sexually harassed. It’s not a fun experience. It’s very demoralizing. And it makes people angry. So I absolutely understand her passion and her anger.”

The young woman declined to reply to the mayor’s comments on Monday. In interviews with WBEZ in recent weeks, the ex-lifeguard said she was sexually attacked by a higher-ranking, male beach employee at an after-work party when she was 17, several years ago.

The woman has said she wrote to the mayor’s office “because Lightfoot was a woman,” but she felt that the mayor had not taken her complaint seriously.

Lightfoot responded, “I understand what her anger and her frustration is. She’s made that very, very clear. I get it.”

Lightfoot also staunchly defended the investigation by the embattled park district inspector general, Elaine Little, amid blistering criticism of the sex-abuse probe from deputy inspector general Nathan Kipp.

Kipp said he was suspended without reason and without pay on Aug. 12, after working on the investigation since the spring of 2020. Last week, he alleged that parks officials had attempted to “impede and obstruct” the investigation.

Little denied that in a statement, and Lightfoot cited those remarks at a news conference Monday.

“The IG, I thought, put out a very robust statement just last week explaining exactly the independence of her investigation,” the mayor said. “I don’t have any reason to doubt what she put in writing and said.”

And Lightfoot alleged that comments about the investigation to the media were not helping matters, though she did not specify what exactly she meant by that.

“We’ve got to let the IG do their work without litigating this in the press,” she said. “That’s not appropriate.”

Kipp has called for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office to take over the case. A spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Kim Foxx last week told WBEZ the office received information about lifeguard abuse from City Hall’s own inspector general, Joseph Ferguson. Foxx’s spokeswoman has declined further comment on the matter since then.

Asked about the possibility of prosecutors taking over the internal park district probe, Lightfoot replied, “There’s nothing that stops the state’s attorney from acting. There’s nothing that stops law enforcement from acting.”

But again the mayor urged allowing “space” for Little’s investigation: “We have to respect her process and let her finish her work.”

The first complaint from a female former lifeguard was sent to Kelly on Feb. 7, 2020, WBEZ has reported. The parks chief promised the woman immediately that he would pass on her 11-page missive on “extreme abuse from the other lifeguards” at the iconic Oak Street Beach to the parks’ inspector general.

But Kelly did not do so until 41 days later — and two days after another female ex-lifeguard’s letter to Lightfoot was forwarded to his office.

Both whistleblowers told WBEZ they think Lightfoot should fire Kelly, who is paid $230,000 a year in the top post he’s held for a decade.

The two complaints led to the internal investigation being opened, and the probe went on in secret for more than a year, until WBEZ reported on it in April.

By that time, investigators had filed confidential reports to Kelly and the park district board alleging serious sexual misconduct by three veteran male lifeguards.

In the worst of those three cases, the inspector general’s office said it found a lifeguard in a supervisory role likely “committed criminal sexual assaults and aggravated criminal sexual abuse” in 2018, when he forced a 16-year-old female rookie at North Avenue Beach to perform a sex act on him and attempted to rape her, according to confidential records obtained by WBEZ.

And investigators wrote earlier this year that the two initial complaints had morphed into a “broad investigation” involving allegations against dozens of workers in the park district’s Aquatics Department.

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