Chicago Park District pays out almost $2 million to three former lifeguards

Documents obtained by WBEZ show Park District officials have quietly settled sexual misconduct cases at the city’s beaches and pools.

A Chicago lifeguard stands on a tower overlooking Lake Michigan
A Chicago Parks District lifeguard stands a top a lifeguard tower at North Avenue Beach, Monday, July 11, 2022. The Park District has quietly settled three complaints from former lifeguards who say they were mistreated for $1.9 million. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times, File Photo
A Chicago lifeguard stands on a tower overlooking Lake Michigan
A Chicago Parks District lifeguard stands a top a lifeguard tower at North Avenue Beach, Monday, July 11, 2022. The Park District has quietly settled three complaints from former lifeguards who say they were mistreated for $1.9 million. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times, File Photo

Chicago Park District pays out almost $2 million to three former lifeguards

Documents obtained by WBEZ show Park District officials have quietly settled sexual misconduct cases at the city’s beaches and pools.

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The Chicago Park District has quietly paid out more than $1.9 million in legal settlements to three former lifeguards who allegedly suffered from sexual misconduct and hazing by supervisors at public beaches and pools, according to documents obtained by WBEZ.

And that might not be the end of the legal costs from the scandal that WBEZ exposed in 2021, leading to the resignations of park district leaders, criminal charges against two male lifeguards and promises of reform.

A fourth female ex-lifeguard filed a lawsuit earlier this year against the park district, its former CEO Michael Kelly and a Humboldt Park supervisor who was convicted of sex crimes last year. That young woman’s suit is pending in Cook County Circuit Court.

The park district’s board approved the three settlements in the last nine months after claims from anonymous “Jane Doe” complainants.

The board voted in favor of those payouts without disclosing publicly that the cases involved sexual misconduct or revealing the amounts that were expended by the taxpayer-funded agency to resolve the cases.

But WBEZ recently obtained copies of claim letters and the settlement agreements through an open-records request. Two of the three cases were settled out of court, after lawyers for the ex-lifeguards threatened to file suit, according to park district documents that officials gave to the station this month.

All three settlement agreements include a clause prohibiting the ex-lifeguards from disparaging the park district.

The total amount for the three settlements came to $1,902,250. A spokeswoman for the park district declined to comment on any of the cases except to say the agency “carefully evaluates claims” and “enters into fair and reasonable settlements, where appropriate.”

The state’s open-meetings law requires that “final action shall be preceded by a public recital of the nature of the matter being considered and other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted.”

In each of the three cases, the board mentioned in public only that it had discussed a Jane Doe legal settlement behind closed doors and immediately moved to vote, video recordings of those meetings show.

The board’s chief of staff, Katie Ellis, defended not providing any details on the cases during public portions of meetings, saying the board complied with Illinois law just “by identifying the case name and number, or the pre-suit matter being settled.”

The state’s open-meetings law “does not require a public discussion,” Ellis wrote in an email to WBEZ this week.

But the plaintiff’s attorneys in the pending case criticized the lack of transparency in the park district’s handling of the three settlements, noting that officials had attempted to conceal the lifeguard-abuse scandal from public view.

“This appears to be a continuing cover-up so that other victims don’t come forward,” said Stephan Blandin of Romanucci & Blandin LLC, one of the lawyers for the young woman who is suing.

Lifeguard tower in the dark at Oak Street beach
A lifeguard tower at Oak Street Beach, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. Anthony Vazquez / Chicago Sun-Times, File Photo

Sordid, misogynistic rituals at a popular Gold Coast beach

In the biggest of the settlements, the park district agreed in May to pay $977,250 to a woman whose lawyer initially had asked for $2.5 million to avoid going to court, records show.

According to a letter from attorney Bridget Duignan to the park district, her client was a victim of Mauricio Ramirez, the Humboldt Park lifeguard manager who pleaded guilty after being charged with sexually abusing two underage female employees he had supervised.

Duignan wrote in January that her client was so traumatized by the experience with Ramirez and unnamed “other supervisors and peers” that she “stays away from city parks and beaches and anything associated with the Chicago Park District.”

Duignan also represented another female former lifeguard in a case filed in 2021 in Cook County Circuit Court against three park district supervisors at Oak Street Beach. That case settled for $350,000 in June, records show.

In court filings, Duignan argued that her client suffered from the same sort of misogynistic workplace as the other former lifeguard who was victimized at Humboldt Park.

The plaintiff in the suit was a minor for part of her tenure at the park district from 2014 until 2018. She allegedly was subjected to “bullying, harassment and gender-based violence” at Oak Street Beach, the iconic, sandy stretch of Chicago’s Gold Coast.

According to the complaint, the young woman was “grabbed, slapped and touched inappropriately, without her consent, often throughout the day by male lifeguards.”

The sordid rituals of Oak Street Beach also included staffers singing a vulgar fight song, “Sexual Harassment Saturdays” and putting lifeguards through “shake and bakes,” which consisted of covering lifeguards up to the neck in the sand and abandoning them there, according to the suit. In one such incident, the plaintiff said, she had to be dug out by a passerby.

When she spoke up and asked to be transferred in 2017, the young woman said her request was ignored. She soon found her locker vandalized and she was “rotted” — ordered to sit on a small boat in Lake Michigan under the summer sun for hours at a time, court records alleged.

“Many victims of sexual harassment and misconduct do not come forward until long after the harassment and misconduct occurred,” Duignan told WBEZ this week. “Although we faced a similar challenge, we were able to obtain compensation on behalf of our clients and they are satisfied with the results.”

A lifeguard stands on a tower at Chicago's beaches
A lifeguard watched over hundreds of people as they cool off and hang out at North Avenue Beach, Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times, File Photo

“Rampant abuse over many years”

Another female ex-lifeguard who got an out-of-court settlement from the Park District had jumped at the chance to work for the Park District at first, lawyer Julia Rickert told parks officials in a claim letter on behalf of the young woman last year.

“The job paid better than most other jobs available to teenagers, and it offered the opportunity to spend the summer outdoors at our city’s beautiful lakefront while simultaneously serving

her community,” Rickert wrote in May 2022.

But the dream job turned “horrific” and her client “suffered incredibly” at the Park District, the lawyer wrote.

“Unfortunately, those benefits came with a terrible price that no young person should ever have to pay,” Rickert alleged. “From the very start, Ms. Doe was subjected to the misogynistic, toxic, and abusive culture that, unbeknownst to her, had pervaded the Aquatics Department for decades.”

She added, “When Park District employees preyed upon a vulnerable girl, they altered her life forever, and she continues to suffer.”

Rickert argued that Park District officials had “every reason to know” that her client and others like her were in danger, citing “media reports” and internal investigations detailing “rampant abuse over many years, as well as numerous systemic failures.”

Rickert’s client allegedly was a victim of a lifeguard supervisor who faced accusations from the Park District’s inspector general and got placed on the agency’s do-not-rehire list.

Rickert sought a settlement of $950,000 and the case was resolved out of court for $575,000 in December 2022, according to the documents obtained by WBEZ.

“Ms. Doe’s wish is to hold the Park District accountable, obtain compensation for her injuries, and continue the difficult task of moving on with her life,” the lawyer wrote to park officials. “At the same time, she believes that the Park District itself must never entirely move on; it must keep in sight what happened to her and other victims.”

Ex-CEO’s wife shuts the door on a process server

The pending lawsuit in Cook County court, which was filed on June 9, similarly blames parks officials, including former CEO Kelly, because they “allowed and concealed a pervasive institutional culture of sexual misconduct against female [Park District] lifeguards,” according to records in the case.

The suit alleges that Ramirez, the lifeguard supervisor who later was convicted, was more than 30 years old when he “groomed and sexually exploited” the anonymous plaintiff at Humboldt Park. The plaintiff was underage at the time.

Her attorney Jason Friedl accused Park District officials, including Kelly, of “reckless and careless disregard for the safety and welfare of its employees, including Jane Doe.”

At his sentencing last year, Ramirez said he wanted to apologize to his victims and took “full responsibility for my actions.”

A process server who tried to deliver the complaint to Kelly’s home said a woman there identified herself as Kelly’s wife, according to court records.

“When I informed her that I was serving documents on Michael Kelly, she refused to take the documents in her hand and closed the door,” the process server wrote, adding that he left the complaint under a doormat.

The lawyer for Kelly in the case declined to comment.

After the lifeguard abuse scandal surfaced in 2021, Kelly defended his handling of the matter. But then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot forced him to resign in October of that year.

The park district watchdog’s office had opened a probe into sexual misconduct targeting lifeguards in 2020, after two young female former lifeguards sent detailed letters to Lightfoot and Kelly.

But the probe remained out of public view for more than a year, until WBEZ reported on what already was a “broad investigation” in April 2021.

An outside counsel’s investigation for the park district concluded that Kelly knew about the explosive allegations far longer than previously revealed. And investigators accused him of doing nothing to investigate the complaints immediately, contrary to his public claims before he was forced out.

Lightfoot replaced Kelly — who led the park district for more than a decade — with Rosa Escareño. All of the settlements came on Escareño’s watch, and she continues to serve as CEO.

The inspector general’s office reported last year that its investigators ultimately found proof to back up 29 allegations against employees in the Aquatics Department, concluding that “bullying, harassing and sexual misconduct flourished and went unchallenged.”

In addition to the settlement payments for the three ex-lifeguards who sued or threatened to go to court, records show the Park District has paid more than $46,000 to an outside law firm for help with the legal woes stemming from the abuse scandal at the beaches and pools.

Those charges were billed by the law firm of Lipe Lyons Murphy Nahrstadt & Pontikis Ltd. of Chicago between February 2022 and last month. The firm is continuing to represent the park district in the pending court case.

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