Chicago Park District leaders sat on a lifeguard abuse complaint for more than 6 months, a new report finds

The Chicago Park District released an investigative report on the handling of allegations of sexual assault against lifeguards at the city's beaches and pools. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
The Chicago Park District released an investigative report on the handling of allegations of sexual assault against lifeguards at the city's beaches and pools. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Park District leaders sat on a lifeguard abuse complaint for more than 6 months, a new report finds

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A report from a former federal prosecutor Tuesday strongly criticized the Chicago Park District’s response to widespread allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and assault against lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools.

The newly released, richly detailed report immediately prompted a wave of firings of top parks officials — and apologies to the girls and young women who have suffered in a toxic workplace culture at the park district’s Aquatics Department.

More than two years after the first complaints went to the park district’s then-chief executive, the agency’s leaders released the 40-page report from the law firm of Arnold & Porter — which was hired less than two months ago to look into the issue independently.

The review concluded that Michael Kelly — who resigned under pressure from the mayor and many City Council members last month after more than a decade as the park district’s CEO and general superintendent — knew about the explosive allegations far longer than previously revealed.

And investigators accused Kelly of doing nothing to investigate the complaints immediately, contrary to his public claims before he was forced out.

Kelly received complaints from the parents of a young female lifeguard who worked at Oak Street Beach in August 2019, the report found. That was nearly seven months before the lifeguard herself sent him an email alleging “extreme abuse” at the iconic Lake Michigan beach in February 2020.

Kelly told her he would turn the matter over to the park district’s internal watchdog but the inspector general was notified only 41 more days later, after the mayor’s office forwarded a second complaint from another young former lifeguard.

Valarie Hays, a former federal prosecutor now at Arnold & Porter, led the external investigation. She concluded that Kelly violated the park district’s policy by not reporting complaints of serious misconduct to human resources officials within five days of learning the allegations.

The independent investigators also found fault with the response from three other high-ranking park district officials: Alonzo Williams, Eric Fischer and Adam Bueling.

Rosa Escareno, who recently replaced Kelly and is serving as interim CEO, said Tuesday she fired the three men. Escareno said she was “absolutely stunned and horrified by what I read” in the report from Hays.

And the lawyers alleged that park district leaders did not take any “corrective action” to reform the lifeguard corps and prevent continued problems until late April — when WBEZ first reported on an internal investigation into “dozens” of serious allegations.

“Between mid-March 2020 and mid-April 2021, a period of slightly over a year, A&P found no evidence that the CPD pursued any material corrective actions to address the allegations set forth in the Original Complaints,” the investigators said.

They said the evidence they saw showed that reform attempts “quickly ramped up beginning on April 27, 2021” — the same day as the first story about the scandal, by WBEZ.

Board President Avis LaVelle Tuesday afternoon apologized for the inadequate investigation and slow response to the complaints of abuse and allegations of mistreatment.

“Their allegations were credible and taken seriously from the point they were turned over to the Inspector General in March of 2020,” LaVelle said in a statement. “We were simply dysfunctional in our approach to this investigation, and I apologize for what has been a slow, tortured process.”

But at a news conference with Escareno and Hays, LaVelle repeatedly sought to deflect blame toward Kelly, saying she trusted him to institute reforms and he misled her. Kelly stepped down from his $230,000-a-year post on Oct. 9, after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said he should be fired over the lifeguard abuse scandal.

Kelly could not be reached for comment.

Lightfoot said Tuesday in a statement that the lifeguards who came forward to complain — and all of the park district’s employees — deserved better than the response they got from parks managers.

“I am outraged and appalled by these findings, particularly those that show that the people entrusted to lead the Park District were aware of these heinous allegations of bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment, and assault and chose to do very little in response,” she wrote. “It is clear that all the way to the top of Park District senior leadership absolutely failed to take these complaints seriously. The investigations themselves were, until recently, also hampered by unacceptable layers of incompetence.”

“To the survivors, this investigation is the first step in the process of bringing justice, accountability, and healing,” the mayor added. “I made a promise that you will be believed, abusers will be held accountable, and that we will change the culture of our institutions to minimize any opportunity for harm to occur. This is the moment where that process begins.”

LaVelle: ‘It’s not fair’ to blame me

LaVelle gave every indication that she plans to be central to the reform process. But a second alderman on Tuesday called on her to follow Kelly in tendering her resignation. Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd, joined her City Council colleague Scott Waguespack, 32nd, in demanding a change at the top of the park district board.

“To dismiss more than three decades of systemic and sustained abuse and harassment as simply something not being handled in a ‘timely manner,’ suggests a stunning level of tone deafness and a failure to accept responsibility as Chair by Ms. LaVelle,” Smith told WBEZ.

When asked repeatedly about her level of culpability, LaVelle said she had regrets but “it’s not fair” to pin blame on the board members at the park district to the same extent as the chief executive.

“It is not within the control of the board, or the board president, to be able to determine exactly what is happening at the Chicago Park District or any entity where you’re operating,” LaVelle said. “The board operates at a level where you’re operating based on what you’re told and based on trust. You have to be able to trust the administrator to tell you what is going on there.”

LaVelle said she was not passing the buck — but added, “This started long before any of us, that I’m aware of, were here … Some of this rests with the management of the park district, who did not tell us the truth.”

LaVelle is a longtime, behind-the-scenes player in Chicago politics. She served as press secretary under former Mayor Richard M. Daley and has long owned a public-relations firm that represents clients with major interests at City Hall, including the private operators of the Chicago Skyway toll road.

Rahm Emanuel appointed LaVelle to the park district board more than a decade ago shortly after he was elected mayor and he promoted her to board president nearly three years ago, in February 2019.

Last week, WBEZ reported that the interim inspector general at the time had prepared a detailed briefing on the growing investigation into lifeguard abuse for LaVelle and Kelly in August 2020. Although LaVelle told WBEZ she could not specifically recall that briefing, the document was cited in the newly released report for the park district by Hays on Tuesday.

The “highly confidential” document revealed that the internal probe quickly morphed into something much bigger than the two original complaints. Within five months, investigators had fielded complaints against “34 subjects” accused of serious misconduct at seven park district beaches, three pools and “offsite” lifeguard parties.

The interim inspector general said potential criminal allegations could necessitate the involvement of law enforcement, but that did not happen for nearly another year.

Even as Hays reviewed management’s actions in the scandal, the park district’s inspector general was continuing to look into specific allegations, officials said Tuesday. The office is being assisted by the firm of the park district’s labor lawyer, James Franczek.

Meanwhile, a criminal probe by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office that began in August remains active, a spokeswoman for Foxx said Tuesday.

And records obtained by WBEZ show police also are looking into reports of sexual violence against lifeguards. Last week, a 32-year-old supervisor at Humboldt Park became the first park district employee charged criminally in the probe, after he allegedly sexually abused and assaulted a 16-year-old female lifeguard who worked with him last summer.

The defendant in the case, Mauricio Ramirez, was the fourth senior lifeguard to resign this year from the park district.

Investigation began months after first report

In April, WBEZ first reported that the park district’s inspector general had been secretly investigating abuse allegations for more than a year, found evidence of serious sexual misconduct by three senior lifeguards — and was looking into allegations against many more employees.

Since that story, more than a dozen women who had worked for the park district came forward with disturbing stories of pervasive misogyny and abuse at the city’s beaches and pools spanning the past five decades.

The report released Tuesday revealed that Kelly learned about allegations of misogyny, abuse and other mistreatment of lifeguards on Aug. 30, 2019, long before the inspector general for the park district became involved.

The father of a lifeguard — a man whom Kelly knew — wrote to him and included his wife’s detailed summary of alleged abuse against their daughter. That included details about an offensive “fight song” that had been painted onto the wall of the Oak Street Beach trailer station and allegations of hazing, derogatory insults and assault.

The lifeguard’s mother told Kelly, “It is appalling that this is going on … especially in light of [the] Me Too movement. All of this is emotionally traumatizing and dangerous.”

Kelly sent that email to another park district official, Williams, with the message, “Take a look and let’s discuss.” Kelly ordered the fight song to be removed, but neither reported the abuse allegations to human resources or anyone else.

The young female lifeguard from Oak Street Beach, who was 17 at the time, wrote herself to Kelly on Feb. 7, 2020, detailing her allegations and asking that something be done about the workplace culture.

As WBEZ first reported in April, Kelly still didn’t report the allegation until nearly six weeks later, after a second complaint was forwarded to the mayor’s office, and he relayed both complaints finally to the park district’s inspector general.

The investigators’ report also took apart the biggest claims Kelly made when he held a news conference at a beach on the South Side in August, in a clear attempt to tamp down the growing scandal. With Lake Michigan and the downtown skyline as his backdrop, Kelly said he asked Williams and Fischer to look into the complaints he got in February of last year before they were forwarded to the inspector general.

But the Arnold & Porter investigation concluded, “There is no evidence that Mr. Williams or Mr. Fischer investigated.”

Williams was paid $195,000 a year as the park district’s chief program officer, records show. Fischer had been with the park district since 1984 and had an annual salary of nearly $103,000 as assistant director of recreation, park district records show.

The report released Tuesday also found that Kelly had vastly exaggerated how many employees he had disciplined for sexual misconduct at his lakefront news conference. Only a tiny fraction of the more than 40 disciplinary cases were related to the topic, and many of the cases cited involved relatively petty infractions.

Kelly continued to keep mum about first learning about the allegations from 2019, even when interviewed by the external review counsel in October. Kelly told investigators he was “‘surprised’ and ‘taken aback’ when he received Complainant One’s email in February 2020,” the report stated.

Williams also said he didn’t recall anything about a previous allegation being sent to the park district until pressed by the external review investigators. Williams added that Kelly told him to get the “fight song” removed from the wall of the park district facility at Oak Street Beach, but that he did nothing else to report the allegations.

The report also determined that Fischer and Bueling, who was the manager of beaches and pools, similarly did not act appropriately after they also were contacted by the whistleblowers early last year.

WBEZ reported in August that Fischer also got the February 2020 complaint from the initial whistleblower and Bueling got the March 2020 complaint letter from the other former lifeguard who contacted the mayor’s office.

Bueling allegedly did not give the letter he got to human resources officials or anyone else, and did not respond to the woman. Investigators also found that Bueling had previously failed to report an allegation, in July 2020, when someone claiming to be a lifeguard wrote to him and asked to talk about sexual harassment and other safety issues at the park district.

Bueling told investigators he didn’t think there was enough information to file a report, despite rules that require him to do so.

Kelly suspended Bueling and Fischer in August.

In interviews with WBEZ last summer, both of the original whistleblowers stood by their allegations, called for Kelly’s firing and criticized Lightfoot’s response to the matter.

Investigators lacked experience with such cases, report says

The report lays some blame for the slow pace of the internal investigation on the fact that the park district’s inspector general had not previously conducted investigations into sexual assault or abuse complaints and was not adequately staffed to do so. Those complaints historically would have been handled first by the Park District’s Human Resources department, and the park district leaders didn’t forward these complaints to them, the report said.

Hays’ firm signed a deal on Sept. 20 to “provide legal services to the board in connection with” the probe of sexual misconduct allegations and the park district’s response to it. The firm is charging the park district a “discounted hourly rate” of $325, records show.

The park district board hired the firm when Inspector General Elaine Little stepped down abruptly, hours after WBEZ reported that Little quit a previous job at the Cook County juvenile jail while under investigation herself in 2018.

In August, Little fired her deputy inspector general, Nathan Kipp, without explanation. Kipp had been the lead investigator in the probe, which involved allegations against dozens of Aquatics Department employees.

Little denied Kipp’s allegations that park district leaders had interfered in the probe and that the inspector general had shied away from interviewing Kelly.

In their report, investigators wrote that they “did not review any evidence to suggest that the slow pace of the [inspector general’s] investigation has been the result of intentional interference by the [Chicago Park District] or the Board.”

On Tuesday, the park district board voted unanimously to release the report. Hays also had given a presentation at a closed-door meeting of the park district board last month. The mayor attended that session, and the following day, Lightfoot publicly called for — and swiftly received — Kelly’s resignation.

But by that point, the criminal investigation by Foxx’s office was well underway. Records show prosecutors began to look into the lifeguard abuse scandal this summer after receiving unspecified information about the matter from City Hall’s inspector general at the time, Joseph Ferguson.

Foxx has assigned specialists from units focusing on sex crimes and public corruption to work on the case. The state’s attorney also called on people with information about abuses at the park district to contact a hotline at her office: (312) 603-1944.

In a letter to Kelly and LaVelle on Aug. 19, Foxx informed the city’s top two parks leaders that prosecutors had begun looking into allegations of “certain criminal conduct, including but not limited to, past and present sexual assault and harassment, obstruction, witness tampering, concealment of criminal conduct and official misconduct of Park District employees and members of the Board.”

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