Mayor Lori Lightfoot Says Chicago Park District Leaders Should Have Told Her About Criminal Investigation Into Lifeguard Abuse

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, seen in this file photo from August, said she told her top parks officials they should keep her in the loop into the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse of lifeguards at pools and beaches. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, seen in this file photo from August, said she told her top parks officials they should keep her in the loop into the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse of lifeguards at pools and beaches. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Mayor Lori Lightfoot Says Chicago Park District Leaders Should Have Told Her About Criminal Investigation Into Lifeguard Abuse

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday the two top leaders of the Chicago Park District had made an obvious “mistake” when they did not tell her for nearly a month about Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s investigation into allegations of “very serious crimes” against lifeguards.

Foxx sent a letter on Aug. 19 to the park district’s longtime CEO, Michael Kelly, and to the parks board president, Avis LaVelle, informing them that her office was looking into allegations of sexual misconduct — and the park district’s handling of the matter.

But after WBEZ obtained a copy of the letter last week, the mayor’s spokesman said Lightfoot “was previously not aware of the letter.”

And on Wednesday, the mayor said, “Of course, I should have known about this at the time that Mike Kelly and Avis LaVelle were notified. I’ve made very clear that that was a mistake on their point. They should have read me in.”

But at a news conference, Lightfoot did not address a question about whether she had confidence that Kelly and LaVelle could continue to lead the park district through the sexual-abuse scandal.

A park district spokeswoman declined to comment late Wednesday.

Lightfoot also made clear she welcomed the investigation by law-enforcement authorities.

“It’s not a surprise that the state’s attorney is investigating,” the mayor said. “From the things that have been leaked out through the press, the young women who have come forward have made allegations of very serious crimes — very serious crimes. So the state’s attorney should have opened up an investigation long ago. But I’m grateful she has done so now, and I think that needs to move forward with all deliberate speed.”

Lightfoot said the investigation must bring justice for the victims and the perpetrators “need to be held accountable.”

“These young women who have come forward and, at risk to themselves, in difficult circumstances, probably re-traumatizing themselves by having to relive what they experienced — they deserve justice and I’m determined to make sure that that happens,” the mayor said.

In Foxx’s letter to LaVelle and Kelly last month, the county’s top prosecutor informed the parks officials that prosecutors had begun looking into allegations of “certain criminal conduct, including but not limited to, past and present sexual assault and harassment, obstruction, witness tampering, concealment of criminal conduct and official misconduct of Park District employees and members of the Board.”

After WBEZ reported on the letter, Foxx tweeted, “In the interest of justice & public safety, my office is carefully conducting evaluations on complaints made against the Chicago Park District. We’re evaluating the validity of the complaints & will make charging decisions, if applicable, when appropriate.”

The state’s attorney became involved about 17 months after two whistleblower complaints — one to Kelly and the other to the mayor’s office — were forwarded to the office of the park district’s inspector general.

That investigation proceeded in secret for more than a year. In April, WBEZ reported that investigators had leveled accusations of sexual misconduct against three senior lifeguards — but were continuing to delve into complaints against dozens of employees in the park district’s Aquatics Division.

The two original whistleblowers told WBEZ last month that they were disappointed in Lightfoot’s handling of the allegations and wanted the mayor to fire Kelly, who is paid $230,000 a year and has been the top park district official since 2011.

Kelly and LaVelle were appointed by Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, but continued in their roles after Lightfoot was elected in 2019.

Kelly said last month he had no intention of stepping down and predicted that the inspector general’s investigation would end in September with justice for survivors and systemic reforms that would be the envy of other park districts across the country.

Soon after, though, Deputy Inspector General Nathan Kipp was fired on the same day Kipp alleged that top parks officials, including Kelly, had attempted to interfere in the probe.

Inspector General Elaine Little and parks officials denied that, saying the investigators operate independently. But Little resigned as inspector general last week, hours after WBEZ revealed she had quit her previous job as director of investigations at Cook County’s juvenile jail in 2018 amid an internal probe of her own behavior there.

Despite the state’s attorney’s involvement in the case, park district officials said Wednesday they had hired a former federal prosecutor, Valarie Hays, to wrap up the inspector general’s investigation into the lifeguard abuse allegations.

And in a statement, officials said they also had brought back a former inspector general, Alison Perona, to fill the role left vacant by Little on an interim basis.

Earlier this week, the park district posted an ad on its website seeking applicants to succeed Little.

The office is supposed to operate independently of the park administrators it has the authority to investigate. But in the new job posting, officials said the inspector general would work “under direction from the Board of Commissioners and the General Superintendent and CEO.”

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