Top Chicago Park District Watchdog Faced ‘Extensive’ Investigation In Previous Job At Cook County

Park district pool sign
Elaine Little, who is overseeing an investigation into alleged sexual violence in the Chicago Park District lifeguard program, was herself the subject of an internal investigation for alleged conflicts. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Park district pool sign
Elaine Little, who is overseeing an investigation into alleged sexual violence in the Chicago Park District lifeguard program, was herself the subject of an internal investigation for alleged conflicts. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Top Chicago Park District Watchdog Faced ‘Extensive’ Investigation In Previous Job At Cook County

The Chicago Park District’s inspector general — who’s leading a probe into widespread sexual violence allegations involving lifeguards — was the subject of an “extensive” investigation herself at Cook County’s juvenile jail and resigned from her job there, WBEZ has learned.

Elaine Little was director of investigations for the county’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center but quit in 2018 — while she was being investigated by her employer for “alleged conflicts and wrongdoing” in that position, according to records obtained by WBEZ.

Court documents indicate that a year-long investigation at the juvenile jail centered on Little’s three-year relationship with another jail employee, who fathered a child with her during the time both worked there.

Little has said her job at the county involved overseeing investigations into all staff at the juvenile jail. But Little and the Office of Cook County’s chief judge — who oversees the juvenile jail — did not reply when asked if Little took part in any investigations of the co-worker who fathered a child with her.

The investigation into her alleged actions at the juvenile jail may raise questions for some about her ability to be impartial in other investigations, experts on government ethics said.

Internal watchdogs should protect the integrity of their work by not forming personal ties with public workers that they could be called upon to investigate, said John Gasiorowski, a retired inspector general for the City Colleges of Chicago.

“You need to avoid relationships with people in the entity that you have jurisdiction over,” Gasiorowski said.

Park district officials did not reply Monday to WBEZ when asked whether Little had disclosed the investigation at her previous job to them.

But two whistleblowers and a former investigator in Little’s office have already called into question the integrity of the probe into the allegations of sexual violence against lifeguards.

Broad probe into sexual misconduct against lifeguards

Little started as the Chicago Park District’s top internal watchdog, which pays $140,000 a year, last October. She was hired months after the inspector general’s office began what’s become a broad probe into allegations that parks employees regularly committed sexual misconduct against lifeguards at public beaches and pools across Chicago.

In August, Little fired Deputy Inspector General Nathan Kipp — on the same day Kipp publicly alleged that top park district officials had attempted to “impede and obstruct” the lifeguard-abuse probe and that the office was avoiding looking into the agency’s chief executive.

Little and park district officials have denied Kipp’s allegations, asserting that the inspector general operates independently of park district administrators. They also said the investigation was progressing swiftly and will bring about needed reform soon.

Mayor Lori Lightftoot has strongly backed Little, saying she had no reason to doubt the inspector general’s independence and planned to await the results of Little’s investigation. The mayor said last month that Little “needs the space to follow the facts where they lead” and that others, including the media, “have to respect her process and let her finish her work.”

Aides to the mayor and top parks officials did not respond to requests for comment about the allegations against Little at her former job.

Little declined to comment, instead directing a reporter to contact Leonard Dixon, the superintendent of the county’s juvenile jail. He did not return messages.

The investigation at the park district has dragged on for more than 17 months, since two former lifeguards sent complaints to parks CEO Michael Kelly and Lightfoot in early 2020.

Officials say three veteran lifeguards resigned after investigators found evidence corroborating allegations that they committed serious sexual misconduct. In the worst case, investigators said a lifeguard supervisor likely engaged in criminal sexual abuse and assault against a 16-year-old parks employee at a beach on the North Side. Nobody has been charged criminally as a result of the investigation.

But WBEZ has reported that the inspector general’s office fielded complaints that dozens of employees engaged in “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence and other criminal acts,” which created “allegedly toxic and dangerous work environments” in the park district’s Aquatics Department.

“Under investigation for approximately a year”

Nearly three years before Little took charge of the office conducting the lifeguard abuse investigation, the juvenile jail’s internal probe into allegations against her ended without result because Little resigned in February 2018, according to an email from a county official that was obtained recently by WBEZ.

Little was known at the time as Elaine Tarver, and the complaint against her came from her then-husband, Curtis Tarver II, who was later elected to the Illinois House as a Democrat from the South Side of Chicago.

“We have been investigating alleged conflicts and wrongdoing involving Elaine Tarver during her time as Director of Investigations at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center,” wrote Keith Sevcik, labor counsel for the Office of the Chief Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court.

In that message, Sevcik also told Curtis Tarver, “This investigation has been extensive as you may have surmised. We just received notice from Ms. Tarver that she will be resigning her position effective February 2, 2018. Therefore, we will be closing the investigation into Ms. Tarver at this time and are documenting her personnel file accordingly.”

A spokeswoman for the chief judge, Timothy Evans, denied WBEZ’s request for that personnel file. The chief judge’s office would not disclose what its investigation of Little had found by the time she resigned.

In a deposition from her divorce case in 2019, Little said she was not disciplined at the county but acknowledged leaving her job at the juvenile jail before the investigation concluded.

“I was under investigation for approximately a year,” she said, according to a transcript of the deposition. “I left while still under investigation.”

While being deposed, Little said county officials became aware of her relationship with another employee of the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center because her then-husband sent a complaint against her to the state’s agency for regulating attorneys and also forwarded the allegations to county officials.

Little began working for the juvenile jail in April 2014 and testified that she began a sexual relationship with a co-worker that summer, according to the deposition transcript.

The co-worker covered the cost of a trip they took to Belize in January 2017. Both still worked for the county at the time, according to county payroll records.

Little also testified that her co-worker “paid for it for my birthday.”

She said the extramarital relationship lasted until August 2017.

She had a child with the co-worker in August 2015 but said she only learned the man was the child’s father in early 2017, during the divorce proceedings between her and Tarver, Little testified.

The man left his job at the juvenile jail in June 2017 and now has a government position in another part of the country. Court records show the man has acknowledged paternity of the child.

Little’s power to make “final decisions”

The child’s father worked at the juvenile lock-up with the title of “rapid response team specialist,” records show. Little said in the deposition he was not a subordinate of hers.

But in applications Little filed for other public jobs, including her current post as park district watchdog, Little said she had the power to make “final decisions” over all cases involving complaints of misconduct against any employees at the county’s juvenile jail.

“I receive, review and assign all investigations,” Little said in a cover letter for a job at the city of Chicago, where she worked between the time she left the county juvenile jail and before she joined the park district.

In her capacity as director of investigations at the county jail, she wrote, she had to “review and approve approximately 300 investigative reports annually.”

According to court records, her ex-husband alleged to state and county officials that Little’s investigative team was “believed to have open investigations” into the jail employee who had the relationship with her.

“She has been involved in a personal matter that creates an obvious conflict of interest for her position as an attorney” for the juvenile jail, Tarver wrote.

The chief judge’s office would not say whether Little conducted or oversaw any investigations of complaints involving the father of her child and did not answer when asked if Little had recused herself from investigations involving the man.

“To protect the integrity of the process, and with limited exceptions, the Office of the Chief Judge does not confirm or deny the existence of, or comment on, internal investigations of employee conduct,” Evans spokeswoman Mary Wisniewski wrote.

A copy of Little’s park district personnel file that officials provided to WBEZ does not include any reference to the investigation she faced at the county. The file includes the materials Little submitted when she applied to become inspector general last year. The opening was created when her predecessor, Will Fletcher, left the park district to become the top internal watchdog for the Chicago Public Schools.

Court documents show Tarver, who is a lawyer, contacted the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission in February 2017 to request an investigation into Little. The matter was closed a few months later, the records show.

Tarver now says he dropped the complaint to the ARDC to help bring resolution to the divorce case. But he told WBEZ he stands by what he alleged at the time.

Tarver provided state and county officials with cell phone records and documents from a joint bank account with Little.

In a statement Monday, Tarver told WBEZ, “I filed a truthful complaint. At the behest of counsel, I did not pursue it despite having evidence to substantiate it.”

He said he declined to comment further on the matter “out of respect” for a child he has with Little and the child she bore with her co-worker at the juvenile jail.

“Cause for concern” for lifeguards probe

Little’s troubles at her previous job with the county could cast doubt on her ability to lead the ongoing investigation at the park district, said experts on internal oversight and government ethics.

Gasiorowski, the retired City Colleges inspector general, said “standard operating procedures” for watchdogs at government agencies suggest avoiding relationships with public employees that you could be called upon to investigate.

“Automatically, that’s going to create an appearance of favoritism if that person either becomes the subject of an investigation, or someone can claim that they were not investigated because of that relationship you have with them,” said Gasiorowski, who also was a deputy inspector general at City Hall and at CPS for decades.

He added, “The best way to avoid those issues as an I.G. is to always maintain arm’s-length relationships with everybody in the government entity you have jurisdiction over.”

Gasiorowski said he believed that Kipp’s allegations, combined with Little’s resignation from a previous job as a government watchdog, could damage confidence in the ongoing probe.

“I think it does create a situation where it would cause the public a lot of concern,” Gasiorowski said. “As an I.G., if you’re not perceived as independent, it’s going to be very difficult for you to be successful.”

The accusers in the park district investigation could become less cooperative than they have been, Gasiorowski said, and other parks employees who could be considering making complaints about abuse might now hesitate to contact Little.

“Future complainants may think twice if they don’t view your office as independent,” he said.

A matter such as the investigation Little faced at the county’s juvenile jail should be disclosed when applying for other, similar jobs, said Kathryn Newcomer, a political scientist at George Washington University who studies inspectors general.

“It’s better to know,” Newcomer said. “You really want to know things that are pertinent when you hire a person.”

Speaking generally, Newcomer said, the most important commodity for inspectors general is their reputation for integrity and trustworthiness, and she said it “could hurt their ability to perform their job” if that reputation is questioned.

“They need to have a reputation for integrity, trustworthiness and as an honest broker,” she said. “Perceptions of impropriety and of actions not becoming an honest broker can be very harmful.”

Allegations of “extreme abuse” against lifeguards

The investigation at the park district began in March 2020. The previous month, a former lifeguard wrote to Kelly, the parks CEO, alleging “extreme abuse” by several lifeguards at North Avenue Beach.

Kelly immediately told the whistleblower that he would send the complaint to the inspector general’s office. But he did not do that for another 41 days. And the original complaint was only referred to the internal watchdog after Kelly received a second complaint from the mayor’s office.

In that letter to Lightfoot, another former lifeguard said she was sexually attacked by a supervisor at an after-work party when she was 17, and that sexual violence, including rape, against lifeguards was commonplace at public beaches and pools.

The original complainant said Kelly contacted her after WBEZ revealed the existence of the investigation in April and asked her to let him know if she heard from the inspector general’s office again.

Both whistleblowers have told WBEZ they think Lightfoot should fire Kelly, who has been the top parks official since he was appointed by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011.

The park district officially is separate from City Hall, but the mayor appoints the chief executive and the parks board, which is led by Avis LaVelle. She was a high-ranking aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley and was appointed park district board president by Emanuel.

LaVelle was the president of the board when Little was hired as inspector general nearly a year ago.

Little, 38, graduated from DePaul University’s law school in 2009 but allowed her law license to become inactive in April, according to state records.

After leaving the county juvenile jail and before joining the park district, Little worked as a supervising investigator for Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which investigates shootings by officers.

From 2010 to 2014, Little worked as an administrative law judge for the Illinois Labor Relations Board, according to public records.

She and Tarver got married in 2008 and their divorce was finalized in February 2019, a month after he was sworn in as a state representative.

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