A Cook County Circuit Court judge has sided with WBEZ in a public-records dispute with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office over the contents of a 2020 complaint letter from a young female lifeguard.
Chicago Public Media — which operates WBEZ — sued the mayor’s office last June, after Lightfoot aides blacked out lengthy passages of the whistleblower’s letter in response to an open-records request from the station.
The complaint from the young woman led to a Chicago Park District investigation, which quickly fielded dozens of accusations of sexual harassment, abuse and assault against employees at public beaches and pools.
City officials argued that the disputed passages of the whistleblower letter did not have to be publicly disclosed under the state’s Freedom of Information Act because that information could identify the letter’s author.
But the lawyers representing WBEZ in the case, Shelley Geiszler and Matt Topic, successfully argued that the station was not seeking any identifying information, and they wrote in the suit against the city that, “The public interest in how Chicago Park District employees or senior leadership responded to allegations of sexual assault is significant.”
On May 17, Associate Judge Allen P. Walker ruled in the case and released a copy of the whistleblower letter without most of the redactions that Lightfoot’s office had made in response to WBEZ’s request last year.
In one part of the letter that the judge made public, the woman wrote that managers at the park district called her a misogynistic term when she tried to speak up about sexual violence in the workplace.
“Consequently, I was so ashamed of what had happened and fearful of the repercussions since this lifeguard held a position of authority that I did not make a report” against her attacker, the lifeguard told the mayor’s office in March 2020.
She also wrote that she told her coworkers about that experience “and they replied that they were not surprised because similar things had happened to them,” with reports of misconduct being ignored by higher-ups at the park district.
“Others said that there were too many hoops to jump through to make a report and that they weren’t taken seriously, so it was not worth it,” the woman wrote in another part of the letter that city officials declined to release.
Lightfoot aides also had redacted a section of the letter in which the woman wrote that she made a complaint of “sexually inappropriate comments” to a manager but nothing came of it and “business continued as usual.”
The woman provided a copy of the complete letter to WBEZ last August, after the station broke the story of the internal investigation at the park district. In an interview at that time, the woman told WBEZ that she was “very disappointed” by the mayor’s response to the scandal.
But lawyers for the city have continued to fight against the open-records case in court.
In a statement to the station Monday, a spokeswoman for the Lightfoot administration’s Law Department said, “The City is reviewing the court’s ruling.”
The next court date in the case is June 30.
WBEZ filed another public-records lawsuit against the park district last year, alleging that officials at that agency also have withheld documents pertaining to the lifeguard abuse scandal that should be made public. That case is pending.
The scandal led to the resignations last year of the park district’s longtime CEO, Michael Kelly, and the parks board’s politically-connected president, Avis LaVelle, who acknowledged the “culture of abuse” in the city’s Aquatics Department.
New leaders at the park district have promised widespread reforms to avoid a repeat of the scandal.
A supervisor on the North Side recently became the second man to face criminal charges filed by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for alleged sexually attacks against lifeguards.
The park district has struggled to hire enough lifeguards for the summer. On Monday, Park District CEO and General Superintendent Rosa Escareno said officials still are seeking more new recruits but have enough lifeguards to open the beaches on Friday.
But the park district needs more lifeguards to come on board before pools are scheduled to open next month.
“We are very optimistic about getting there,” Escareno said. “But we certainly are keeping a close eye on it.”
Amid a national lifeguard shortage, the park district has launched a marketing campaign to attract new recruits and offered hiring bonuses of $500.
The parks board also has approved funding to launch a new office aimed at dealing with sexual misconduct complaints this year.
WBEZ reporter Patrick Smith contributed.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.