The Chicago Park District’s board president resigns amid the lifeguard abuse scandal

Avis LaVelle
Chicago Park District Board President Avis LaVelle appeared at a press conference about the lifeguard sexual abuse scandal last week. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ
Avis LaVelle
Chicago Park District Board President Avis LaVelle appeared at a press conference about the lifeguard sexual abuse scandal last week. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ

The Chicago Park District’s board president resigns amid the lifeguard abuse scandal

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The politically connected president of the Chicago Park District’s board announced her resignation Wednesday, after months of fumbling with the fallout from widespread complaints of sexual harassment and violence against young lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools.

Avis LaVelle – who was a top aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley – said at Wednesday’s park district board meeting she decided to step down nearly three years after she was appointed as president.

LaVelle’s resignation came a month after the park district’s longtime chief executive, Michael Kelly, was forced to quit over his role in dealing with the lifeguard abuse scandal. And last week, the park district’s interim CEO fired three other high-ranking officials accused of mishandling serious allegations.

Eight City Council members also publicly called for LaVelle’s removal last week. But Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has repeatedly dodged questions about LaVelle’s future as the crisis at the park district deepened in recent months.

Even as she quit the park district board entirely on Wednesday – and said she was apologizing again for the scandal – LaVelle read from a lengthy prepared statement defending herself. And she said Lightfoot had not asked her to resign.

“I am not being forced out,” LaVelle said at the end of the board meeting, which she said would be her last.

“While the facts may not matter to everyone, I am confident that the facts to date and those yet to be disclosed will show that I acted honestly and responsibly here, as I have throughout my entire public career,” LaVelle said.

She added, “If you know me then you know me, and you know that’s how I have lived my life publicly and privately. My integrity and reputation are among the things that I value most. I came to this board position with my integrity and reputation intact. I would do nothing in this role or any other position to put that at risk.”

She said she had “fully supported a thorough investigation” into the allegations, which she noted stretched back years and even decades.

But LaVelle added that the rest of the board members were not aware of the allegations of sexual violence against lifeguards for “many months” because she did not inform her fellow parks commissioners about a long-running, ongoing internal investigation.

“I take responsibility because it came to light on my watch,” LaVelle said. “My fellow board members are not to blame for this culture of abuse and should not be held responsible. I want to make that clear.”

The mayor had said Friday that she would not fire LaVelle, instead praising her for “a lot of service to this city over decades.” But Lightfoot also foreshadowed Wednesday’s resignation, saying she expected LaVelle herself would quickly decide whether she would continue in the unpaid board leadership role.

LaVelle was first appointed to the board in 2011 by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Emanuel promoted her to president in February 2019. Lightfoot kept LaVelle in that position after she was elected a few months later.

But LaVelle is a longtime player in Chicago government and politics. For the past 17 years, she has been owner of a public relations firm that has represented many clients with lucrative interests at City Hall, including government contractors and the private operators of the Chicago Skyway toll road and the city’s parking meters.

She’s also served as executive director of the Business Leadership Council, which describes itself as the “Chicago’s premier Black business organization.” The group’s board includes many of the city’s most influential and politically active Black business owners and executives.

In a statement after LaVelle’s resignation Wednesday, Lightfoot again praised her – in stark contrast to her unusual public call for Kelly to be fired last month. She said the board’s vice president, charter school operator Tim King, will serve as interim president and a permanent successor to LaVelle “will be named soon.”

The mayor also said she had “full confidence” in the board.

Before LaVelle announced her widely expected resignation, interim parks CEO Rosa Escareno promised that she would lead reform efforts, with more than 3,000 employees scheduled to complete sexual harassment training by the end of the year.

“I know that we have failed too many of our staff and eroded trust with the community,” Escareno said. “This will not be tolerated.”

LaVelle was publicly silent for several months after WBEZ first reported in April that the park district’s inspector general’s office was investigating serious allegations against dozens of employees in the agency’s Aquatics Department, which includes scores of beaches and pools across Chicago.

At first, Lightfoot expressed faith in the inspector general’s probe, urging patience. But Inspector General Elaine Little quit in September, just hours after WBEZ reported that Little herself had been under investigation for alleged conflicts and other wrongdoing when she resigned from a previous job at Cook County’s juvenile jail in 2018.

Little did not disclose that investigation to the park district when she was appointed as its top internal watchdog last year, according to her job application. But court records obtained by WBEZ show Little was the subject of an “extensive” investigation into “alleged conflicts and wrongdoing” in her prior job at the county lock-up.

Under the park district’s code, the board was responsible for choosing the inspector general, and the inspector general reports to the board president – although the watchdog is supposed to be “operationally independent.”

Little’s resignation prompted the parks board to hire the law firm of former federal prosecutor Valarie Hays to conduct an independent review. Hays issued a scathing report a week ago, and LaVelle and other park district leaders issued apologies.

The investigation found that the park district did not make any real effort to enact reforms internally in response to the explosive allegations until after WBEZ revealed the scandal.

But LaVelle staunchly defended her own role after the report from Hays was released, saying it was “not fair” to blame her because she had been misled by Kelly, who was heavily criticized by Hays. LaVelle said parks officials “did not tell us the truth.”

“The board operates at a level where you’re operating based on what you’re told and based on trust,” LaVelle said. “You have to be able to trust the administrator to tell you what is going on there.”

And after the special counsel’s report was released, Lightfoot said of LaVelle, “I know that this has been a very trying time for her personally, professionally, and very difficult on her family.”

But those arguments did not sway several City Council members and former lifeguards who say they suffered in a work environment of pervasive misogynistic misconduct at the park district for decades.

The internal investigation began in early 2020 with whistleblower letters from two former female lifeguards who complained to park district officials and the mayor’s office. The probe dragged on in secret for more than a year, until WBEZ broke the story in late April.

Records obtained recently by WBEZ show the interim inspector general at the time, Nathan Kipp, prepared a briefing for LaVelle and Kelly in August 2020. Kipp told the top two park district officials that the allegations involved “34 subjects” who possibly committed crimes at seven public beaches and three park district pools. But LaVelle said she did not specifically recall being briefed.

In August, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office opened its own investigation into alleged sex crimes and possible corruption in the handling of the allegations by the park district.

LaVelle sent a personal text message to the state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, seeking to speak with her on Aug. 19, records show. LaVelle reached out to Foxx at 10:02 a.m. – 97 minutes after WBEZ first reported that the lead investigator in the park district’s internal lifeguard abuse probe was removed and that he called on Foxx to intervene, records obtained by the station show.

But Foxx did not respond to the text message and never discussed the issue with LaVelle, instead sending a letter a few hours later to LaVelle and other top parks officials.

In that letter, Foxx told the park district leaders her office was conducting an active investigation into complaints 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.”

The state’s attorney concluded the letter by making clear that LaVelle and park district leaders were not welcome to contact her directly, suggesting that their lawyers send any further questions about the matter to her top aide.

LaVelle told WBEZ she texted Foxx to ask her to confirm her office’s investigation and offer her full cooperation with prosecutors, whose probe is ongoing.

Lightfoot has said she did not know about the state’s attorney’s investigation of the park district until her aides were told about it by WBEZ a month after the letter from Foxx to park district leaders. The mayor said LaVelle and Kelly made a “mistake” and should have notified her when they learned of the prosecutors’ probe in August.

WBEZ also has reported that Chicago police are investigating cases of alleged sexual crimes against lifeguards.

A 32-year-old supervisor at Humboldt Park, Mauricio Ramirez, was charged last month with sexually abusing and assaulting a 16-year-old female lifeguard who worked for him in the summer. Ramirez is being held in custody on $500,000 bond, according to county jail records.

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