Park District Fires Investigator Who Led Probe Into Alleged Sexual Violence Against Lifeguards

Nathan Kipp poses for a portrait
Nathan Kipp began as the Chicago Park District’s deputy inspector general in April 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Nathan Kipp poses for a portrait
Nathan Kipp began as the Chicago Park District’s deputy inspector general in April 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Park District Fires Investigator Who Led Probe Into Alleged Sexual Violence Against Lifeguards

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The deputy inspector general for the Chicago Park District got fired on the same day he alleged parks leaders attempted to “impede and obstruct” a long-running internal investigation into widespread complaints of sexual violence against lifeguards at the city’s public beaches and pools.

Investigator Nathan Kipp said in a statement Thursday that he has received a termination letter dated Aug. 19. In the morning of that day, Kipp issued a statement announcing he had been suspended without pay and without explanation a week before that.

Kipp said the disciplinary actions against him “reflect a concerted effort by the Park District to prevent me from continuing to investigate the criminal activity and other employee misconduct that seemingly pervades the Beaches & Pools Unit, including officials’ apparent efforts to cover up or minimize the hostile workplace culture.”

He also hinted at the breadth of the probe, saying “dozens” of park district employees had contacted investigators to allege that they suffered sexual violence.

Kipp’s statement last week represented a rare and dramatic break from the routine silence of investigators.

At the time, he alleged that top parks officials had interfered in the high-profile inspector general’s probe, which has dragged on for nearly 1-½ years. Kipp also said he was told the decision to suspend him had come not from his boss, Inspector General Elaine Little, but from the “Park District’s Administration” – the very leadership he was tasked with monitoring.

Little and park district leaders have denied the allegations, saying the office operates independently of park district administrators. But they have refused to say why Kipp was suspended.

The inspector general and top park district officials did not return messages Thursday about Kipp’s firing.

A spokesman for Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “The Mayor does not comment on personnel decisions made by an independent, investigative office.”

In the termination letter, which was obtained by WBEZ, Little does not give Kipp any reason for being fired.

“This letter is to confirm that effective Thursday, August 19, 2021, your at-will employment with the Office of Inspector General at Chicago Park District has been terminated,” Little wrote.

She added that Kipp was banned from entering the inspector general’s office or the park district’s administrative office.

But Kipp said the timing of his dismissal “is not a coincidence.”

“That I was terminated on the same day I went public with the Park District’s and its Board of Commissioners’ improper involvement in the [inspector general’s office] investigation further underscores that my ‘emergency’ suspension had no legitimate basis in the first instance,” he wrote in the new statement Thursday.

And Kipp told WBEZ he believes park district leaders were “trying to sweep anything that they find under the rug” by taking him off a case he pursued aggressively.

“They are trying to quash any kind of criticism about the investigation, as part of a further attempt to minimize any kind of wrongdoing that might be discovered within the lifeguard corps and the park district’s administration,” he said in a telephone interview from Florida, where he was attending an Association of Inspectors General conference.

Since Kipp’s statement last week, the two ex-lifeguards whose whistleblower letters sparked the investigation have voiced support for Kipp. And the two young women have called for the firing of the park district’s longtime CEO and superintendent, Michael Kelly.

But Lightfoot defended Little on Monday, saying she had no reason to doubt the independence of the inspector general. The mayor also repeatedly dodged questions about the future of Kelly, who’s paid $230,000 a year, and the park district board’s politically-connected president, Avis LaVelle.

Kipp has suggested the probe should treat Kelly as a “person of interest,” but alleged the inspector general’s office had failed to interview the parks chief and had no apparent plans to do so.

“The [Office of the Inspector General’s] investigation is not independent, as Mr. Kelly falsely assures,” Kipp wrote in his statement last week. “Instead, the Park District and its Board of Commissioners have repeatedly and successfully exerted improper influence over the OIG, with the apparent goal of ending the investigation prematurely and as quietly as possible.”

And in an interview with WBEZ last week, Kipp also said, “I think that the investigation has really jumped the rails. However this comes to a close, it’s going to be woefully deficient. I highly suspect that this is going to be a whitewash.”

Kipp has called on the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to take over the probe.

“The dozens of professed survivors of sex crimes who have bravely come forward to the [park district’s inspector general] deserve a fair, thorough and unbiased investigation,” he said Thursday.

Kipp said he believed that parks officials and their inspector general “have no clear interest in uncovering and publicly disclosing the full extent of the Beaches & Pools Unit’s numerous systemic deficiencies, as well as the degree and severity of any alleged sexual and physical abuse among Lifeguards.”

He added, “State’s Attorney Foxx is now among the dwindling number of officials who can ensure that any criminal activity in the Park District’s Lifeguard corps will not be minimized or swept under the rug, and that the public will instead learn how Park District officials have failed the District’s employees, patrons, and the public at large.”

Foxx’s aides have kept silent on the matter since telling WBEZ last week that they received information about abuse against lifeguards from City Hall’s inspector general, Joseph Ferguson.

Records show Kipp began as the park district’s deputy inspector general in April 2020, less than a month after two graphic complaints from female ex-lifeguards were referred to the office for investigation. Kelly had received the initial complaint in early February 2020, and he immediately promised the 17-year-old whistleblower that he would refer it to the park district’s inspector general.

But documents obtained by WBEZ indicate Kelly did not contact the inspector general until 41 days later – only after Lightfoot’s office received and forwarded a second complaint from another female ex-lifeguard. That young woman said she was sexually attacked by a more senior employee at Oak Street Beach when she was 17.

The investigation went on in secret for more than a year, with three veteran lifeguards quietly resigning after facing serious allegations. During that time, the park district continued to publicly recruit lifeguards – who can be as young as 15 – to work at the beaches and pools this summer.

In April, WBEZ reported on the “broad” investigation into complaints of rampant “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence and other criminal acts,” according to confidential documents obtained by the station.

Kelly has staunchly defended his handling of the matter and said he had every intention to stay in the job he’s held for 10 years, even as the initial whistleblower and the other complainant said they felt he and Lightfoot did not respond adequately to the issue.

Kipp has implied that his boss, Little, had shied away from investigating Kelly’s own role in the sex abuse scandal.

Kipp said last week Kelly “is a potential subject” of the investigation because of his delay in forwarding the first complaint to the inspector general. Kipp also cited comments the parks chief is accused of making to the initial whistleblower in the spring, after WBEZ first reported on the investigation.

The young woman told WBEZ that Kelly had asked her to “keep him in the loop” about developments in the probe. Kelly has denied that he was attempting to interfere with the investigation in the call, even though he would not discuss the conversation in detail, describing it as “private.”

But Kipp characterized the conversation as an “apparent abuse of authority” by Kelly.

And in his interview last week with WBEZ, Kipp said, “Given the fact that he’s the CEO and superintendent of the park district, and he’s calling a woman who has reached out to him for help, there definitely is an implicit intimidation factor there.”

Because of all those reasons, Kipp said the investigation “should really go all the way to the top.”

As the park district’s deputy inspector general, Kipp was paid $114,000 a year, records show. He briefly served as interim inspector general last year, before Little was appointed in October.

Kipp also worked for nearly three years for the inspector general’s office at the Chicago Public Schools, where he played a prominent role in the investigation that prompted the departure of Forrest Claypool, who was then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s schools chief.

According to his online resume, Kipp graduated from the University of Wisconsin’s law school, clerked for the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and worked for the Mayer Brown LLP and Winston & Strawn LLP firms in Chicago.

Little is paid $140,000 a year as inspector general. She used to work as a supervising investigator for Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which reviews incidents involving officers, and at Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

After Kipp’s statement last week, Little said the investigation was making progress and she promised her office will provide closure to survivors and prompt reform throughout the park district.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.