How a lawyer at the center of Evanston’s lifeguard abuse scandal landed a Cook County job

Winter Evanston beach
Views from Lighthouse Beach in Evanston, Illinois on February 8, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Winter Evanston beach
Views from Lighthouse Beach in Evanston, Illinois on February 8, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

How a lawyer at the center of Evanston’s lifeguard abuse scandal landed a Cook County job

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Jennifer Lin should catch much of the blame for Evanston’s mishandling of sexual misconduct complaints from teenage girls and young women who worked at the city’s beaches, according to an investigative report released last month from a law firm hired by the town’s city council.

When she was the city’s top human resources manager, the lawyers say, Lin was primarily at fault for Evanston’s yearlong delay in looking into the “pervasive” harassment and abuse suffered by lifeguards and other beach workers.

And the investigators found Lin initially was skeptical of the female lakefront workers who first stepped forward in 2020, suggesting they also “behaved badly” and commenting to another Evanston official that “these millennials hold onto things.”

But long before she came in for that heavy criticism in the independent counsel’s report, Lin already had landed a new, six-figure job in local government.

Records show Lin got interviewed and picked last August to become the director of compliance for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez – even after Evanston’s city manager punished Lin for allegedly failing to tell her about the severity of the beach workers’ complaints.

The new job with the county pays Lin an annual salary of more than $117,000, or nearly as much as she was making in Evanston.

Lin already had accepted her new job when she entered into a severance agreement with the northern suburb that was worth 22 weeks’ pay, according to Evanston and court records.

A spokesman for Martinez defended the hiring of Lin, saying she was deemed the most qualified applicant for the position in a process overseen by a federal monitor who watches over personnel matters in the office to prevent patronage.

And in a statement Monday to WBEZ, the Martinez spokesman, Patrick Hanlon, said the application Lin filled out for her new job “did not require applicants to disclose whether they had faced any disciplinary action in a previous or current job.”

Hanlon did not respond to WBEZ’s questions about the criticism of Lin in the report for the city of Evanston, saying only that “the individuals who perpetrated rape and nonconsensual sex as detailed in the Evanston report should be held accountable.”

There have been no criminal charges stemming from the Evanston beach workers’ complaints, although some of them have accused their managers at the lakefront of sexual abuse and assault.

Susan Feibus – the federal monitor who oversaw the hiring of Lin at the county – would not talk about that process. “I have nothing to say,” she said. “Not a word.”

Asked if she would respond to the criticism of Lin in the report from the lawyers for Evanston, Feibus replied, “Absolutely not.”

Lin also declined to comment.

Beach worker ‘truly appalled’ by Lin

But former beach workers told WBEZ they were deeply frustrated by Lin’s actions in Evanston when they came forward and think she should not be allowed to serve in another, taxpayer-funded job as a result of her track record at her previous public position.

One young woman – who says she was raped by a manager when she was a lifeguard in Evanston a few years ago – sent a scathing message to Lin’s county email address last month, hours after the independent counsel’s report was released publicly on Feb. 25.

The woman and more than 50 other current and former beach workers signed a petition to Evanston officials in July 2020. In it, they alleged “blatant sexism, sexual harassment, assault, racism and discrimination” at the lakefront.

The girls and young women called on city officials to “apologize directly to survivors, their families and all lakefront employees for consistently placing underaged employees in oppressive, uncomfortable and dangerous situations and in close proximity with sexual predators.”

“I was truly appalled by the utter mishandling of the Evanston petition and allegations of sexual assault,” the woman wrote to Lin last month. “I would like you to know that people like yourself are the reason why sexual assault so often goes unreported.”

Although petition organizers met with Lin and other city officials that year, the matter was kept out of public view until last July – when WBEZ first reported on the accusations.

The young woman who wrote to Lin last week said an older manager sexually assaulted her when she was a 17-year-old lifeguard and she was too intoxicated to give consent. The young woman did not want to be identified, and WBEZ generally grants anonymity to people who say they are survivors of sexual violence. The man she accused did not reply to requests for comment.

In text messages obtained and previously reported on by WBEZ, the young woman told the manager in 2020 that he and other superiors at the Evanston lakefront were “taking advantage of kids” who worked under their guidance and that their behavior had “f***** people up for a long time.”

After reading the independent counsel’s report last week, the former lifeguard wrote to Lin: “This was a textbook example of how to mishandle allegations of sexual assault. You dismissed, hid and downplayed the experiences of those who signed the petition.

“I do not appreciate the implication, noted in the [independent counsel’s] report, that those of us who were assaulted while under the influence somehow brought it upon ourselves by ‘behaving badly’ … Your attempts to shift responsibility through victim blaming are abhorrent and utterly unproductive.”

The woman also responded to the report’s findings of what Lin said to another Evanston official when the accusations first were brought to suburban officials.

“Ms. Lin, you mentioned that ‘these millennials hold onto things,’” the woman wrote. “As a survivor of sexual assault, I do, in fact, ‘hold onto things.’ These ‘things’ impact my life on a day-to-day basis, and I’ve spent the past three years learning to manage and move past them.

“I hope that you also ‘hold onto some things’ should you continue working as a public servant,” the woman added. “Namely, that you miserably failed the 53 young women and girls who [pleaded] for your help and support in fixing the culture of an incredibly damaging and destructive workplace.”

The woman concluded her email to Lin by suggesting she send some of her severance pay from the city of Evanston to groups that support sexual assault survivors.

Lin’s quick move to new government jobs

Three days after WBEZ broke the story of the beach workers’ petition in Evanston last July, then-City Manager Erika Storlie told elected officials in the suburb that she was taking Lin off the job.

In an email to the mayor and City Council members, Storlie said she “was never aware of the more serious allegations contained in the Petition, despite many interactions and discussions with staff.

“This is not acceptable,” Storlie wrote. “Based on the conclusion that the Petition was not shared with me or anyone else in the City Manager’s Office or the Law Department I believe discipline is necessary. Effective today, the Human Resources Division Manager is being placed on administrative leave.”

But the next month, while still on paid leave in Evanston, Lin interviewed for the job with the county and she accepted the position on Aug. 27, according to a court filing from the monitor for the court clerk’s office.

In the court filing, the monitor wrote that Lin “passed requisite background check and employment verification,” and she cited Lin’s experience with the Cook County Forest Preserve and as human resources division manager for Evanston.

“This experience suggests that she should be a good fit,” the monitor wrote.

Meanwhile, in Evanston, Lin reached a severance agreement and left the city payroll on Sept. 10. Under the agreement, Evanston paid her $51,530.77, according to city spokeswoman Jessica Mayo.

Mayo said city officials were aware Lin was looking for another job but did not know she had received and accepted another offer when negotiating the severance agreement with her.

Asked if the city enters into severance deals with workers if it’s known that they already have new jobs, Mayo replied, “Separation agreements are negotiated on a case-by-case basis and include multiple factors the City may consider, none of which we wish to make public.”

The severance deal with Lin included a “non-disparagement and confidentiality clause,” with city officials promising to give her “neutral references.”

“If asked if you are eligible for rehire, the CIty will respond with ‘Do not know,’” according to the agreement.

Storlie signed the deal. Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss told WBEZ he expressed to Storlie that he did not think she should do it but he could not prevent it.

“Erika asked my opinion,” Biss said. “I was opposed to entering into any severance agreement with Jennifer. Erika declined to take my advice.”

Storlie did not return messages. She also left the city of Evanston in October with a severance package and now works for another suburban government.

Text messages obtained by WBEZ show Storlie wrote to Biss and the city’s top lawyer and told them she wanted to “discuss a separation agreement” on the evening of July 17 – while the mayor and council held a special, closed-door session to discuss the lakefront scandal. Storlie and Lin were in that meeting at first but departed before it concluded.

Before going to work for the county in October, Lin also worked for a couple months for state Rep. Denyse Wang Stoneback, D-Skokie. State records show Lin was paid a total of $12,500, at a rate of $38.50 an hour, for being a “contractual worker” with Stoneback from Aug. 1 until Oct. 11.

Stoneback did not return messages.

‘She wasn’t taking us seriously’

Lin began at the court clerk’s office on Oct. 17. She had been working for Evanston since 2015, with an annual salary of nearly $122,000.

Her new full-time county job pays her more than $117,000 a year, according to county records.

As the court clerk’s director of compliance, Martinez’s office said, Lin is responsible for compliance with the federal Shakman decree, which forbids political considerations from affecting employment decisions.

By the time she started the new county job, the official investigation in Evanston was well underway. Last summer, soon after WBEZ first reported on the beach workers’ accusations, the suburb’s officials hired the firm of Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter to look into the matter.

The firm’s partners include Julie Porter, a former Illinois legislative inspector general who also was a federal prosecutor for some of the most high-profile corruption cases in Chicago in recent years.

In their 75-page report completed last month, the investigators said the city botched its response to the petition from dozens of girls and young women in 2020.

“It was the City’s obligation to take it from there – to elevate the serious allegations to City leadership, to see that the claims of misconduct were properly investigated, and to make changes to correct the wrongs they found,” the lawyer wrote. “That is not what happened here.”

Investigators said they had interviewed Lin, and they criticized her repeatedly in their report.

“We attribute the incorrect decision not to conduct an investigation primarily to Lin,” the lawyers wrote, adding that Lin and the city’s then-parks director “should have elevated a copy of the petition to other key City officials” in 2020.

The investigators added, “In her interview with investigators, and in some of her contemporaneous emails, Lin noted that some of the young women complaining about the behavior they experienced had themselves ‘behaved badly.’”

And the lawyers wrote, “From the beginning, Lin appeared skeptical of the petition.”

Those findings did not surprise Anna Fredrick, a former beach worker who was one of the organizers of the petition drive in 2020 and met with Lin and other city officials. In interviews before the release of the report, Frederick and another petition organizer said they felt Lin was dismissive toward them.

“We were hoping that as a woman, she would get it,” Frederick told WBEZ earlier this year. “None of them really seemed to get it.”

After the report came out, Frederick said she was “really glad it calls her out in the detail that it does.”

“We had the feeling that she was either not believing us or didn’t seem interested the entire time,” Frederick said of Lin. “It was such a hard position for us at the time.

“We were like, ‘We have to be civil and we have to keep cooperating with her if we’re going to get anywhere, even though we had this feeling the whole time that she wasn’t taking us seriously.”

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