Ex-Chicago watchdog criticizes Mayor Lightfoot’s response to lifeguard sex abuse probe

Former Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson
City Hall’s former inspector general, Joe Ferguson, strongly criticized the Lightfoot administration’s handling of the sexual misconduct allegations involving lifeguards at public beaches and pools. Bill Healy / WBEZ
Former Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson
City Hall’s former inspector general, Joe Ferguson, strongly criticized the Lightfoot administration’s handling of the sexual misconduct allegations involving lifeguards at public beaches and pools. Bill Healy / WBEZ

Ex-Chicago watchdog criticizes Mayor Lightfoot’s response to lifeguard sex abuse probe

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City Hall’s former top watchdog strongly criticized the Lightfoot administration’s handling of the sexual misconduct allegations involving lifeguards at public beaches and pools.

Joe Ferguson — whose final term as the city’s inspector general ended last month after 12 years on the job — recently told WBEZ that Mayor Lori Lightfoot acted far too slowly in response to the scandal at the Chicago Park District.

For months, the mayor staunchly defended park district leaders — who are appointed by the mayor, with the approval of the City Council — and the separate inspector general at the park district.

WBEZ first reported on the widespread allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and assault at the park district in April. Lightfoot forced out longtime parks CEO Michael Kelly in October, and politically connected park district board President Avis LaVelle stepped down earlier this month.

“This mayor is not shy about critique, criticism and dispensing harsh judgments of all sorts of people who work in city government, and in this instance, with sex crimes involved, she had little to nothing to say,” said Ferguson, who has clashed with Lighftoot on a variety of issues before and since his last day in office on Oct. 15.

As she has on other issues where they’ve differed, Lightfoot brushed off Ferguson and took an unusually personal tone in responding to his newest comments, making clear she has no interest in his opinions on any matter at this point.

“It is pathetic and sad that the former IG continues his series of baseless, sour grapes vitriol to anyone who will listen,” mayoral spokesman Cesar Rodriguez said in a statement to WBEZ.

“And his desperate grabs for attention by opining on issues about which he knows nothing does not warrant any further response. He is not relevant to the present or future of city government, and it seems like every time he opens his mouth, he underscores that he is simply not credible.”

A couple months before he left his job, Ferguson received information about the lifeguard abuse scandal and shared it with Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who has opened a probe into allegations of sex crimes and corruption at the park district.

“That’s what should’ve happened here about a year and a half ago, and that’s what didn’t happen here until August,” Ferguson said.

He said he could not reveal what information his office had passed on to Foxx. But he noted that two female former lifeguards filed the initial complaints of widespread, serious abuse to park district officials and the mayor’s office in early 2020.

The two whistleblower letters were forwarded to the park district’s inspector general in March 2020, and that soon morphed into a “broad investigation” of complaints against dozens of employees in the Aquatics Department, according to confidential records obtained by WBEZ.

The internal probe remained out of public view until WBEZ reported on it in April, soon after park district investigators told top officials they found proof of serious sexual misconduct by three senior lifeguards.

For several months after that, Lightfoot steadfastly maintained that the park district leaders were handling the matter appropriately.

But Ferguson said that was not the case and it was not clear what information Lightfoot was relying upon.

“The question that’s begged right now is: What was Avis LaVelle telling the mayor?” Ferguson told WBEZ. “What were the nature of the conversations that they had that left Lori Lightfoot comfortable in the notion of saying, ‘Everything’s under control. We’ll wait. No worries.’”

“Never seen anything like it”

What has happened in the months since the park district probe became public in the spring, Ferguson says, was like nothing he could recall in his long career.

In August, the park district’s inspector general at the time, Elaine Little, fired lead investigator Nathan Kipp without explanation. Kipp publicly alleged that park district leaders sought to downplay the misconduct and that the inspector general’s office had shied away from investigating Kelly’s role.

In response to Kipp, Lightfoot unequivocally backed the park district’s leaders, again urging patience with the investigation and saying she had no reason to doubt Little.

The mayor’s trust only appeared to run out in September, after WBEZ reported that Little herself was under investigation for “alleged conflicts and wrongdoing” when she left a previous job at the Cook County juvenile jail in 2018. Little resigned a few hours after that story appeared.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Ferguson said. “I’m not sure there’s any precedent for it. It’s completely bizarre.”

Kelly quit after the park district board hired an outside counsel to investigate the management response to the abuse allegations. The special counsel, Valarie Hays, blasted Kelly in a report issued earlier this month.

And the new interim parks district CEO fired three senior parks officials as soon as she received Hays’ report. Kelly and those three other employees were being paid a total of more than $619,000 a year, according to park district records.

LaVelle later stepped down also, although she defended herself, alleging Kelly misled her about the scandal. LaVelle said Lightfoot had not pushed her off the parks board, and the mayor lauded the track record of LaVelle, who was a former press secretary to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Ferguson said Lightfoot’s initial reticence to take an aggressive approach at the park district baffled him.

Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, appointed Kelly and LaVelle, but Lightfoot kept them in those positions after she was elected in 2019.

“This is a mayor who very early on appeared in public with Mike Kelly, and sang his praises based on her prior dealings with him and her knowledge of him,” Ferguson said. “This is a mayor who stood by Avis LaVelle for reasons that are mysterious to all of us, other than maybe they had ties going back to the Daley administration. I don’t know.”

Ferguson said Lightfoot’s long-running hesitancy to intervene in the scandal represented “a curiosity that really warrants some probing. Presumably, that’s a question, directly or indirectly, that maybe the state’s attorney’s office will be looking at.”

Park district watchdog’s office “designed” to avoid conflict

Ferguson said the dramatic and unusual developments in the case have provided a measure of redemption for Kipp, the deputy parks inspector general who was fired in August, on the same day he alleged interference in the internal probe.

“Certainly, his raising the alarm was an important and justified thing,” Ferguson said of Kipp. “Him coming forward in this way — that’s a serious concern, not just about the investigation, but the integrity of the whole office itself.”

Ferguson said it appeared that parks officials did not properly vet Little, the ousted parks watchdog, before hiring her in 2020 and that Little “was conducting herself in a way that basically was beholden to the parks board president.”

When the special counsel’s report was released on Nov. 2 , LaVelle said the park district watchdog’s office was “designed to be independent but collaborative, not confrontational.”

Ferguson said that’s not how a real inspector general’s office should work.

“Difficult findings by I.G.’s are not typically well received by the people who are sort of on the receiving end,” he said. “That doesn’t mean confrontation. That’s transparency. And there’s a tendency in the old way of Chicago to equate transparency with confrontation. We need to move forward from that.”

LaVelle did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.

Ferguson also questioned Lightfoot’s rejection of a proposal in July from two City Council members who called for his office to join the park district inspector general’s probe of lifeguard abuse. At the time, Lightfoot brushed off concerns that the parks watchdog had adequate resources to deal with the matter.

“It was an opportunity, and she tossed it aside,” he said. “It’s a mystery. But we don’t know what she was told and not told about this.”

Ferguson said he hoped that the mayor would use the park district scandal as an opportunity to revisit her campaign pledge to consider merging the watchdog offices for the park district and other city agencies under the City Hall inspector general.

Lightfoot has not named a permanent replacement for Ferguson. Under him, the inspector general’s office at City Hall helped build federal corruption cases against powerful City Council members, including Edward Burke and Carrie Austin, and also investigated police abuses.

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