Chicago Park District leaders were told of broad lifeguard abuse claims more than a year ago

Chicago no lifeguard sign
Welles Pool in Lincoln Square is part of Chicago Park District. City Council members and ex-lifeguards say they want more reforms at the agency due to a widespread sex abuse scandal. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago no lifeguard sign
Welles Pool in Lincoln Square is part of Chicago Park District. City Council members and ex-lifeguards say they want more reforms at the agency due to a widespread sex abuse scandal. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Park District leaders were told of broad lifeguard abuse claims more than a year ago

In late August of last year, the Chicago Park District’s watchdog prepared a “highly confidential” presentation for two top parks leaders, detailing “wide-ranging” sexual misconduct against young employees at many public beaches and pools.

An investigation by the park district’s inspector general had begun earlier in 2020, sparked by graphic and disturbing whistleblower letters from two young, female former lifeguards.

Within a few months, the ongoing probe expanded to include nearly three dozen “concerning allegations” at 10 beaches and pools, according to a 17-page “investigative briefing” obtained by WBEZ recently.

In the report dated Aug. 27, 2020, the lead investigator in the case told Park District Board President Avis LaVelle and then-parks CEO Michael Kelly that more work was needed to “determine the extent of the troubling work environment and culture.” But the presentation made clear that the allegations included potential sex crimes – and that the probe “may necessitate the involvement of law enforcement.”

Despite that warning, LaVelle and Kelly kept the existence of the lifeguard abuse probe entirely out of public view for another eight months, even as the park district recruited applicants as young as 15 to be lifeguards at scores of public swimming spots.

The existence of the probe only became public in late April, when WBEZ first reported on confidential reports from the investigation that were given to Kelly and the board earlier this year. Those records show that three senior lifeguards were accused of serious sexual misconduct, in what the inspector general called a “broad investigation” into complaints that many more supervisors abused lifeguards – some of them underage girls.

In an email to WBEZ on Tuesday, LaVelle wrote that she could not recall receiving the presentation authored by Nathan Kipp, who was the park district’s interim inspector general at the time.

“I do not have a specific recollection of an Aug. 27 meeting, nothing on my calendars and no copies of any document from Mr. Kipp,” LaVelle said.

But LaVelle also told WBEZ, “If I talked to him, I talked to him briefly by phone … It’s possible he gave me a phone briefing.”

In any case, LaVelle said, she always had told internal investigators to “follow where the facts lead” and supported all disciplinary actions recommended by the park district watchdog’s office, noting that three lifeguards accused of sexual misconduct got suspended in August and September of last year.

Kipp declined to comment on the report he wrote for LaVelle and Kelly in August 2020.

He was the lead investigator in the probe for more than a year but he was suspended and then fired without explanation in August of this year, when he accused top parks leaders of obstructing the lifeguard abuse investigation.

Kelly could not be reached. He resigned from his $230,000-a-year post as top executive on Oct. 9, the same day Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot urged the parks board to fire him over his alleged mishandling of the highly sensitive issue.

A spokeswoman for the park district and the spokesman for the mayor declined to comment Tuesday.

Internal investigation quickly involved “34 subjects”

Ex-lifeguards who say they survived sexual harassment, abuse and assault have long criticized park district leaders for their failure to act more promptly in response to the scandal. The revelation of the secret briefing last year raises further questions about why top parks officials did not take aggressive action to institute reforms long before the internal investigation came into public view.

Officials began planning to conduct sexual harassment training earlier this year. But it was only after WBEZ’s reporting that park district leaders announced a slew of changes intended to address the situation, including the appointment of an “internal monitor” for beaches and pools, the creation of a new “Office of Protection” and the suspensions of two officials who oversaw lifeguards.

Now, the 14-month-old report to LaVelle and Kelly provides new details on the allegations at the beaches and pools – and suggests that the two top park district leaders were told of the potential gravity and extent of the problem much earlier than previously known.

Among the most significant assertions in Kipp’s briefing to LaVelle and Kelly:

  • The misconduct alleged during the first months of the probe involved “34 subjects” at seven beaches, three pools and “offsite” lifeguard parties.

  • The alleged victims known at the time ranged in age from 17 to 21, and the subjects of the complaints were as young as 19 and as old as 38.

  • Among the men facing accusations was an employee who allegedly spied on female lifeguards and patrons as they were using park district locker rooms.

  • Investigators believed their “next steps” at that point could have included the “potential involvement of Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.”

But law enforcement authorities would not get involved for nearly another year. WBEZ has reported that on Aug. 19, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx sent LaVelle and Kelly a letter informing them that prosecutors had opened an investigation into the abuse of lifeguards – and the park district’s handling of the matter.

In the letter, Foxx informed LaVelle and Kelly 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.”

Foxx said she began the investigation after receiving information about lifeguard abuse from the inspector general’s office for Chicago City Hall, which does not have jurisdiction over the park district.

LaVelle is a longtime player in Chicago politics and government. Three decades ago, she was press secretary to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. She’s been the park district’s board president since February 2019, when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her to the post, and she’s served on the board for nearly a decade.

After Kelly resigned earlier this month, LaVelle sought to distance herself from him, saying he was “guilty of deceit and failing to take critical steps to promote the zero-tolerance standards that must replace this frat boy culture that has been allowed to flourish here for too long.” LaVelle did not specify what she meant by “deceit.”

And in her comments at a parks board meeting four days after Kelly resigned, LaVelle gave no suggestions she would step down and said she planned to be part of trying to reform the park district in the wake of the scandal. She vowed that the park district board would “remain committed to seeking the truth … and we will continue to do whatever it takes to root out and destroy that culture.”

The seven categories of alleged misconduct

Kipp began his August 2020 report – titled “Investigative Briefing: In re Lifeguards” – with a summary of the two original complaints that launched the abuse probe.

A 17-year-old who was a lifeguard in 2019 at Oak Street Beach sent the first complaint to Kelly in February 2020. The parks chief immediately promised he would refer her 11-page letter to the inspector general’s office. The complainant “recounted a work environment where hazing, bullying, sexual harassment, and on-duty drug use were the norm,” Kipp wrote.

The second complaint was sent the following month to the mayor’s office by a five-year veteran lifeguard who alleged she was sexually attacked “by another employee in a more senior position” when she was 17. And she said what happened to her was just part of “a huge incidence of sexual violence within the Park District,” records show.

Both young women reiterated their allegations in interviews with WBEZ in August.

The inspector general’s investigation began in March 2020, after the mayor’s aides forwarded the second whistleblower letter to park district leaders.

That August, Kipp told Kelly and LaVelle in his briefing that investigating the complaints from the first two women was “Priority One” for the inspector general’s office. But Kipp added that there were dozens of additional allegations.

He wrote that the misconduct alleged at that point in the probe fell into these seven categories:

  • “Criminal Sexual Abuse”

  • “‘Peeping Tom’ Disorderly Conduct for Invasion of Privacy”

  • “Sexual Harassment”

  • “Bullying-Type of Harassment.”

  • “Alcohol- and Drug-Related Misconduct”

  • “Hazing”

  • “Supervisory Indifference or Abuse of Authority”

That final category “means instances when supervisors (1) were aware of employee complaints but did not take appropriate reporting steps, or (2) threatened to retaliate against employees who expressed a desire to raise complaints or who had already raised complaints,” the briefing document states.

Kipp said in his report that this roadblock was among the “unique difficulties encountered throughout the investigation.”

“One recurring allegation involves the threat of retaliation against Complainants and other victims, so the [inspector general’s office] has had to consider their safety and well-being,” he wrote.

Although Kipp cautioned that the investigation was ongoing, he also said his office recommended officials suspend three employees who “presently threaten the safety and welfare of Complainants, identified victims, other Park District employees, and Park District patrons.”

“Peeping Tom” allegedly spied on lifeguards, patrons

Two unnamed employees “are alleged to have committed acts that rise to the level of Criminal Sexual Abuse,” Kipp wrote, saying the complaints against them appeared to be “detailed and credible.”

And he said investigators found “recent testimonial evidence corroborated allegations that a third subject” was a “peeping Tom” who also “committed acts that rise to the level of Criminal Sexual Abuse.”

Another woman – who was not one of the two original complainants – told investigators that the man “was discovered spying through a partially opened door to watch her undress in a bedroom” at a lifeguard party, records show.

“The subject was known to spy on girls and women who change in locker rooms at Park District facilities,” according to Kipp’s report to LaVelle and Kelly. The woman also told investigators that she had seen the same man “caressing her friend’s upper legs after her friend had fallen asleep while drinking alcohol.”

At the time of the report, Kipp said there was no evidence of the more serious crime of sexual assault.

But in the following months, the inspector general’s office would find evidence corroborating at least two allegations of assault, according to confidential documents obtained by WBEZ.

Earlier this year, the watchdog told Kelly and the parks board of an even more egregious case, in which a male senior lifeguard at North Avenue Beach allegedly forced a 16-year-old female lifeguard to perform a sex act on him and then attempted to rape her. The office also found evidence corroborating sexual assault and abuse allegations against another lifeguard.

Three men have left the park district payroll after facing allegations from the inspector general’s office, officials say. Those three are among a total of eight who have been suspended, according to the park district. But parks administrators have declined to release the names of the employees who were suspended.

WBEZ has filed a lawsuit against the park district in Cook County Circuit Court, asking a judge to compel officials to disclose documents pertaining to the suspensions of all employees accused in the inspector general’s probe of lifeguard abuse.

Kipp’s report to LaVelle and Kelly in August 2020 concluded by saying investigators’ next steps would include working to “continue to define the universe of victims and subjects to determine the extent of the troubling work environment and culture.”

But Kipp did not name the alleged perpetrators in the report or identify any of the investigation’s targets.

Despite the explosive report, the park district inspector general’s office assigned only two investigators to the probe, according to Kipp and interviews with former lifeguards who came forward with abuse allegations.

After he was suspended last summer, Kipp said he had told parks leaders about “severe staffing shortcomings” in the investigation when he was interim inspector general – and they “wholly ignored” that.

Finally, in June, park district officials said they hired an outside law firm to help the inspector general with the investigation. But even after the addition of outside lawyers, the inspector general told the parks board the officer lacked sufficient personnel and expertise to handle the “unprecedented” investigation.

LaVelle’s lucrative deals with city contractors

At the time of the report, Kipp was serving as interim inspector general because Lighftoot appointed the previous park district inspector general, Will Fletcher, to become the top internal watchdog at the Chicago Public Schools in June.

Kipp returned to his former role as the deputy inspector general – and continued to work on the lifeguard abuse probe – after the park district board hired Elaine Little to succeed Fletcher as its inspector general.

Little fired Kipp on Aug. 12, the same day he alleged that parks officials and the board had attempted to “impede and obstruct” the probe and he also suggested that the inspector general’s office was avoiding looking into Kelly’s response to the whistleblowers.

Little and park district officials denied Kipp’s allegations, and Lightfoot staunchly defended Little for weeks. But Little abruptly resigned in September, after WBEZ reported that she herself was the subject of an “extensive” investigation for alleged conflicts of interest and wrongdoing when she quit her previous job as director of investigations for the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in 2018.

LaVelle and other park district officials have declined to say how Little was vetted for the internal watchdog’s job.

After Little resigned, park district officials announced that they had hired former federal prosecutor Valarie Hays to continue the internal investigation.

Kelly quit the day after a closed-door parks board meeting where Hays made a presentation to the board commissioners. Soon after Kelly’s resignation, LaVelle made her first public comments on the lifeguard abuse investigation at another board meeting on Oct. 13, where she announced the appointment of former mayoral aide Rosa Escareno as Kelly’s interim replacement.

LaVelle owns and operates a public-relations firm, A. LaVelle Consulting Services, based in downtown Chicago. Records show her biggest clients have included major local government contractors and the private operators of the city parking meter system and the Chicago Skyway toll road.

While she has served as parks board president, LaVelle’s private public relations firm enjoyed gross receipts of nearly $210,000 last year and more than $201,000 in 2019, according to disclosures filed with City Hall.

She reported that she was the sole full-time employee of the company and that her biggest clients have included the the Chicago Skyway operators, who paid $5,000 a month to A. LaVelle Consulting Services for “public/community relations,” and Continental Testing of LaGrange, which hired her firm as a subcontractor on a city deal to provide “building trades licensing exams.”

LaVelle’s company also has done work under deals with other local government agencies, including the City Colleges of Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority and the Public Building Commission of Chicago, according to public records and A. LaVelle Consulting’s website.

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