Chicago Park District Suspends Two Managers In Lifeguard Sex Abuse Scandal

Lifeguard
On Monday, Park District CEO Michael Kelly told reporters, “Despite recent reports, I have always taken these allegations with the utmost seriousness." Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Lifeguard
On Monday, Park District CEO Michael Kelly told reporters, “Despite recent reports, I have always taken these allegations with the utmost seriousness." Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Park District Suspends Two Managers In Lifeguard Sex Abuse Scandal

Days after a young female whistleblower criticized Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Park District CEO Michael Kelly, the parks boss announced Monday that two officials who oversaw public beaches and pools have been suspended in connection with a sexual misconduct scandal involving lifeguards.

In a hastily called news conference at a beach on the South Side, Kelly also sought to vehemently rebut statements from the whistleblower and other female former lifeguards who told WBEZ he had not handled the allegations properly.

And on Monday evening, the spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told WBEZ her office “received information from the City of Chicago Office of the Inspector General regarding these allegations,” but couldn’t comment further.

Lightfoot and Kelly have said they didn’t see the need for the city’s inspector general to get involved in the case, despite urging from some aldermen that the office should investigate.

The city’s inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, declined to comment on the matter Monday evening.

The new developments followed a WBEZ interview last week with the initial whistleblower who said she felt her complaint to the city’s top parks official was initially “brushed under the rug.” The woman sent Kelly a letter early last year alleging serious misconduct by seven supervisors at Oak Street Beach. But Kelly waited nearly six weeks before forwarding that letter to the park district’s internal watchdog, as he immediately promised her he would do.

On Monday, Kelly told reporters, “Despite recent reports, I have always taken these allegations with the utmost seriousness … My commitment to this has not wavered.”

Kelly said his office is cooperating fully with what he described as an independent investigation by the office of the park district’s inspector general, which has dragged on for nearly 17 months.

“I will see this investigation to completion,” Kelly said. “I understand the frustration with the time it has taken to look into these complaints. Investigations never happen fast enough. But I assure every person who has been impacted that this is top of mind for me and it has been since the first day I learned about it.”

Park District CEO Michael Kelly
Park District CEO Michael Kelly at a press conference Monday at a beach on the South Side. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ

But those comments and the new disciplinary actions by the park district did not sway the young woman who filed the initial complaint. The woman – who was 17 years old when she wrote to Kelly and is now 19 – told WBEZ after Monday’s news conference that she still believes Kelly did not act swiftly enough after she sent him an 11-page complaint letter in February 2020.

“I think he’s honestly trying to protect his job and not being held accountable,” she said of Kelly’s comments on Monday. “I know some people want him to lose his job. That’s not for me to say. But he really needs to be held accountable for not doing anything when I wrote to him.”

The young woman did not want to be identified. She has alleged she was subjected to physical abuse and sexually harassing comments during her two summers as a park district lifeguard. WBEZ generally grants anonymity to people who allege they suffered abuse.

In a response to the woman’s email on Feb. 7, 2020, Kelly replied within hours and he promised her that he would refer her complaint to the inspector general’s office.

But he did not do that until March 19, 2020, WBEZ first reported in April. And that happened only after a second female ex-lifeguard sent a complaint of sexual misconduct to Lightfoot’s office, which then forwarded it to the park district’s $230,000-a-year leader.

Kelly said he told two other top managers immediately but acknowledged that there was a 41-day gap between the initial whistleblower letter to him and the referral to the inspector general’s office.

On Monday, he declined to comment on the young woman’s account of a phone conversation she had with Kelly in April, after WBEZ revealed the inspector general’s probe into the allegations. The young woman said Kelly asked her to keep him informed about her contacts with investigators, and complained to her that people were “breathing down his neck” after news of the investigation went public.

“I’m not going to discuss any private conversations I had with anybody,” Kelly said at the news conference at the South Shore Cultural Center.

After the event, Kelly told WBEZ he did not mean to interfere with the investigation by talking to the whistleblower and her father this spring: “It’s my word against anyone’s. I called them with the right intentions.”

He added, “I hope that girl keeps the faith with me … When this is done, that girl is going to have catalyzed systemic change.”

Kelly said the new disciplinary actions he had taken were strong and would have “a ripple effect through the district.”

“These suspensions today are big,” Kelly said.

He said he could not name the two “high-level management staff” who were suspended on Friday, and he did not give reasons for their suspensions. In a news release, park district officials said that the two employees who were suspended had been an assistant director of recreation and the beaches and pools manager.

According to payroll records, Adam Bueling is the park district’s $91,800-a-year manager of beaches and pools. There are three assistant directors of recreation, but sources said the one who oversees the beaches and pools is Eric Fischer, a former lifeguard who is paid more than $102,000 a year and has been on the park district’s payroll since 1984.

Records obtained by WBEZ show Fischer also received the February 2020 complaint from the initial whistleblower and Bueling got the March 2020 complaint letter from the second former lifeguard who contacted the mayor’s office at about the same time.

The young woman who wrote to Bueling and Lightfoot said she had been sexually assaulted by a manager when she was 17 and that other higher-ups at the park district mocked her about it.

That woman said she was “sexually assaulted by another employee with a more senior position than I.” She said she then learned of a “huge” number of such incidents at the park district after telling three co-workers about the attack.

On Monday, Kelly said he contacted one of his top aides, Chief Program Officer Alonzo Williams, after the first complaint he received, and that Williams then notified Fischer. Officials have said those inquiries did not get far.

But Kelly said he did not regret contacting his managers instead of sending it to the inspector general, as he promised the whistleblower.

“That is not unreasonable,” Kelly said. “That is actually quite normal to ask your management team to look into it first … But that investigation started the day I took that call.”

He said he has re-considered that decision “over and over” but, 18 months later, he said he feels that his delay in contacting the inspector general made no difference.

“We’d be right where we are at right now in this investigation,” Kelly said. “Hopefully, it’s going to wrap up soon.”

Asked if alleged abusers remain at work at the city’s beaches and pools currently, Kelly said he could not answer that question and that the park district’s inspector general, Elaine Little, would know that.

Little has said her office lacks the resources to deal with the unprecedented investigation. According to documents obtained by WBEZ, the investigation involved serious complaints against dozens of employees and the probe could look at “systemic” issues that allowed the problems to flourish.

Former lifeguards have told WBEZ that there has been a culture of sexual harassment and abuse at the beaches and pools of Chicago for decades.

The initial whistleblower said she was told there are just two investigators assigned to the case.

But Kelly said Monday he did not agree with the proposal to involve the City Hall inspector general because, “I think we have enough resources on it to see this through.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.