The internal watchdog for the Chicago Park District said Wednesday investigators have looked into 48 allegations of misconduct at the city’s beaches and pools and found ample evidence to back up complaints that supervisors got away with sexually harassing, abusing and assaulting young female lifeguards, including underage girls.
A new report from Interim Inspector General Alison Perona provided the most detailed accounting yet of a scandal that prompted the resignations last year of the park district’s longtime chief executive and board president.
“These allegations brought to light not only misconduct, but also failures in the Park District’s reporting and administrative functions,” Perona wrote. “At several locations, long-tolerated hazing behavior fostered an environment where bullying, harassing and sexual misconduct flourished and went unchallenged.”
At the park district board meeting Wednesday, Perona said the allegations were deemed sustained in 29 of the 49 cases investigated by her office in the park district’s Aquatics Department.
The report from the inspector general also described for the first time the alleged sexual assault of a “drunk female patron” by a male park district supervisor.
The park district watchdog’s office began looking into allegations of widespread misconduct nearly two years ago. The investigation started after two young female former lifeguards sent detailed and disturbing letters to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and then-Park District CEO Michael Kelly.
But the probe remained out of public view for more than a year, until WBEZ reported on the “broad investigation” last April. Before that, top parks officials did not take any real action to respond to the problem, according to a report issued in November by a former federal prosecutor hired by the park district board.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx opened her own investigation in August, amid accusations that Kelly and the park district inspector general at the time mishandled the matter.
Kelly resigned in October under pressure from Lightfoot and aldermen. And on Wednesday, the mayor’s interim choice to succeed Kelly asked parks board members to create a new “Office of Prevention and Accountability.” Officials said this new branch of the park district would investigate sexual misconduct allegations instead of the inspector general’s office.
“We are facing a critical moment at the Chicago Park District, and we must take this opportunity to do everything in our power to build a safer and more respectful work environment for all our employees and patrons,” Rosa Escareño, the park district’s interim general superintendent and CEO, said in a statement.
Escareño said the inspector general’s probe has led to 15 employees being fired, resigning while under investigation or being asked to quit.
The inspector general said her office is continuing its investigation. But the new, annual report released Wednesday provided graphic and powerful descriptions of some of the probe’s most egregious “sustained findings” so far.
That included the first case in the scandal in which a park patron, rather than an employee, was the alleged victim of sexual violence.
“A male supervisor bullied and harassed several female lifeguards and likely assaulted a drunk female patron,” according to the report from Perona. “In 2021, this male supervisor boasted to other lifeguards that he took a drunk female patron in the lifeguard trailer and sexually assaulted her. The circumstances surrounding the assault were confirmed by several witnesses.”
The investigators were “unable to confirm the identity of the patron” who was allegedly assaulted.
The supervisor denied the allegation but was suspended and resigned while under investigation. Officials have put the man on the park district’s “Do Not Rehire” list, Perona said.
The report also said investigators found evidence that park district supervisors failed to report misconduct that had been brought to their attention.
In one of those cases, a supervisor “failed to report information regarding two alleged sexual assaults.”
“The supervisor admitted that she had been informed of the assaults but did not report them because she was unclear about the reporting requirements,” Perona wrote, adding that the discipline against the supervisor included “a period of suspension and mandatory counseling and training.”
Another lifeguard supervisor also faced only a written reprimand and “a program of re-training” after he allegedly failed to stop or report “bullying and harassment activity by his subordinates.”
Perona said there were 19 cases last year “in which the investigative teams were unable to substantiate the allegations of misconduct, bullying or harassment.” In five of those cases, the alleged victims said they were not subjected to misconduct, while nine other employees declined to cooperate.
Perona became the interim inspector general in September, when Elaine Little stepped down as the park district’s top watchdog. Little quit hours after WBEZ reported that she was facing an “extensive” investigation into “alleged conflicts and wrongdoing” when she quit her job as director of investigations at Cook County’s juvenile jail in 2018.
Until then, the mayor had staunchly defended Little and the investigation, despite calls to devote additional resources to the issue and allegations that park district leaders were interfering with the sensitive probe.
The criminal investigation by the state’s attorney’s office has yielded sex-crimes charges against a lifeguard supervisor at Humboldt Park. Mauricio Ramirez, 32, was arrested and charged after allegedly having sex with two employees who were 16 years old at the time of the alleged assaults.
A spokeswoman for Foxx said Wednesday the investigation at the park district’s Aquatics Department was ongoing.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.