The Chicago Park District has racked up legal bills totaling more than $330,000 from outside law firms that were hired to help deal with the sexual abuse scandal involving lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools.
The firm that investigated the park district’s response to the widespread allegations charged more than $259,000 for producing a blistering report last fall, WBEZ has learned.
Another firm has charged more than $70,000 to help the park district inspector general’s office as the internal watchdog looked into dozens of complaints of harassment, abuse and assault, according to records.
In October, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot forced the resignation of longtime park district CEO and General Superintendent Michael Kelly, blasting him for his handling of the scandal. Politically connected parks board President Avis LaVelle also stepped down in November.
The inspector general’s office opened its investigation almost two years ago, after two young, female former lifeguards sent whistleblower letters to Kelly and Lightfoot. But the internal probe remained out of public view for more than a year – until WBEZ broke the story of the “broad investigation” at the park district’s Aquatics Department last April.
A few weeks later, records show, the park district signed a contract with the firm of Jim Franczek, the veteran chief labor counsel for City Hall, the Chicago Public Schools and the park district.
The understaffed park district inspector general’s office hired Franczek P.C. on May 18 “to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and/or assault against Park District employees committed by current and former employees of the Park District,” according to the contract with the firm,.
In a report to the park district board last month, Interim Inspector General Alison Perona said the investigators found evidence to back up 29 of 49 allegations they have investigated in the ongoing probe.
“At several locations, long-tolerated hazing behavior fostered an environment where bullying, harassing and sexual misconduct flourished and went unchallenged,” Perona wrote.
In addition to the deal with Franczek’s firm, Perona said in October she hired “two part-time investigators who each have extensive experience in sexual assault investigations.”
Park district officials initially denied WBEZ’s requests for copies of the contract with Franczek’s firm and the firm’s bills. Represented by lawyer Matt Topic, WBEZ sued the park district in Cook County Circuit Court in June, alleging violations of the state’s open-records law, and officials turned over the records recently.
The total amount charged by Franczek so far is $73,297.44.
Perona did not return messages, and Franczek declined to comment.
The contract with Franczek’s firm was signed last year by the park district’s then-inspector general, Elaine Little. But Little quit in September, hours after WBEZ reported that she was facing an “extensive” investigation into “alleged conflicts and wrongdoing” when she quit her job at Cook County’s juvenile jail in 2018.
At that point, the mayor – who had previously defended Little – said the park district had to hire a “true independent investigator” with a reputation “beyond reproach” to look into the matter.
Six days later, on Sept. 20, the park district board signed a $325/hour contract with the Arnold & Porter firm, for an investigation by former federal prosecutor Valarie Hays.
That firm billed the park district for $259,455.04 for a report that was released in early November, according to invoices and parks officials.
The 40-page report from Hays concluded that Kelly, the parks chief, had known about the allegations far longer than he previously acknowledged and did nothing to investigate them immediately, contrary to his public claims and park district policy.
Hays’ investigation also led the park district to fire three other high-ranking officials. And the report found park district leaders did not take any “corrective action” until WBEZ first reported on the complaints.
A spokeswoman for Arnold & Porter declined to comment.
Park district officials also declined to comment on the legal bills from the two firms and their work for the agency.
Meanwhile, prosecutors under Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx have been conducting their own investigation into lifeguard abuse cases at the park district and officials’ handling of the matter since August. That probe recently resulted in the indictment of a Humboldt Park lifeguard supervisor.
The city of Evanston also has employed outside lawyers to deal with similar allegations from dozens of female current and former beach workers in the north suburb. Evanston officials said they will release the report from the Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter firm, which was hired last summer, by the end of the week.
The firm’s total bill so far for Evanston taxpayers: about $103,000.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.