Chief Investigator Says He Was Suspended To ‘Obstruct’ Chicago Lifeguard Abuse Probe

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Nathan Kipp, the lead investigator into a broad lifeguard sexual abuse probe, says Chicago Park District officials suspended him in an effort to impede the investigation. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
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Nathan Kipp, the lead investigator into a broad lifeguard sexual abuse probe, says Chicago Park District officials suspended him in an effort to impede the investigation. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chief Investigator Says He Was Suspended To ‘Obstruct’ Chicago Lifeguard Abuse Probe

The lead investigator for the probe into sexual violence against Chicago lifeguards alleged Thursday that top park district officials have forced him off the high-profile case in an effort to “impede and obstruct” the internal investigation.

In a statement released Thursday morning, Nathan Kipp – who’s the No. 2 in the office of the Chicago Park District’s inspector general – disclosed that he was put on unpaid suspension a week ago. Kipp said parks officials gave him no reason for the punishment and he had “done nothing wrong.”

Kipp said he was told by human resources personnel that his suspension was not ordered by his boss, Inspector General Elaine Little, but by “unidentified officials from the Park District’s Administration” – the same administration Kipp’s office is tasked with monitoring.

The suspension and Kipp’s startling decision to speak out publicly came as parks chief Michael Kelly and other top district officials have faced increasing criticism for their handling of the explosive matter.

“This meritless action is a clear attempt by Park District officials to impede and obstruct a devastating investigation into widespread sexual assault, sexual harassment, and physical abuse in the District’s Beaches & Pools Unit,” Kipp said.

WBEZ first reported that investigators have been looking into allegations that dozens of park district employees regularly committed sexual misconduct against female lifeguards – including minors – at public beaches and pools across Chicago. The investigation has dragged on for 17 months.

Now, Kipp alleges that leaders at the park district have repeatedly interfered with what was supposed to be an independent probe.

And he called on Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office to take over the case from the park district’s inspector general, saying he had “lost all confidence in the OIG’s investigation” and that the office had been “methodically neutered” by parks officials.

“The OIG’s investigation is not independent, as Mr. Kelly falsely assures,” Kipp said. “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.”

He added, “The OIG’s investigation is in dire straits, despite whatever progress Mr. Kelly may claim.”

Kelly has led the park district for 10 years, and he and the parks board’s president, Avis LaVelle, have continued to serve in those roles under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, even though they were appointed by her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel.

Earlier this week, the park district announced suspensions against two high-level managers who oversee lifeguards, with Kelly promising new safeguards against abuse and a swift end to the investigation.

But Kipp replied that Kelly himself “should be considered a person of interest in the investigation.”

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Nathan Kipp began as the park district’s deputy inspector general in April 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

In statements Thursday afternoon, a park district spokeswoman and Little denied that the agency’s administrators interfered with the internal watchdogs’ role, with Little replying that much of what Kipp alleged was “flatly false.”

“The OIG has never engaged in or supported a ‘cover-up,’” she wrote. “The OIG has never colluded nor corroborated with the Park District in the handling of any investigation.”

Little said she alone meted out discipline in her office, and did not say why Kipp was suspended. But she criticized Kipp for speaking out.

“The OIG finds it an egregious derelict [sic] of duty for an individual associated with the OIG to continue to share confidential and sensitive information regarding this investigation with the media and elsewhere,” Little said.

In a statement, Lightfoot spokesman Cesar Rodriguez did not address Kipp’s accusations specifically but he said Little “needs the space to follow the facts where they lead and to complete her investigation in a thorough and expeditious manner.” The mayor will “await” a final report from Little, Rodriguez said.

Kipp said his suspension was “clearly a tactic meant to thwart my unflinching work to expose Park District officials’ attempts to cover up or minimize the culture of criminal sexual misconduct and misogyny that has thrived – and continues to thrive.”

Parks CEO’s ‘apparent abuse of authority’

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 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 assaulted by a more senior employee at a public beach when she was underage.

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 city’s beaches and pools this summer.

The issue only became public in April, when 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.

Kelly has staunchly defended his handling of the matter, even as the initial whistleblower told WBEZ that she felt the parks chief and Lightfoot were not taking the young female lifeguards seriously.

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

Kipp said 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 whistleblower in the spring, after WBEZ’s initial story.

The young woman told WBEZ last week 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.

Despite all that, Kipp said, the inspector general’s office “has not sought to interview Mr. Kelly, and I am not aware of any intention for the Office to interview Mr. Kelly.”

Even as she criticized Kelly and Lightfoot, the whistleblower praised the efforts of Kipp and the other investigator on the case, saying they had “done a good job” in an understaffed office.

‘Criminal activity pervades beaches and pools’

Kipp also took issue with Kelly’s statement to reporters Monday that he would bring the investigation to a close in September. The suspended investigator said there was no way that the deadline from Kelly would give the inspector general’s office adequate time to look into “actionable complaints against dozens of individuals who have allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct, and who are currently employed with the Park District.”

And he said Kelly’s quick timeline to wrap up the probe showed “the Park District’s intent to minimize the criminal activity that pervades the Beaches & Pools Unit.”

“Mr. Kelly’s September deadline suggests that he is not interested in receiving a thorough and comprehensive OIG report that details the Beaches & Pools Unit’s myriad systemic deficiencies, as well as the extent and severity of sexual and physical abuse among Lifeguards,” Kipp wrote. “Because of the rushed deadline, the OIG’s report will either be woefully deficient, or it will be an outright whitewash prepared with the sole intention of ending the investigation as quickly and quietly as possible.”

Kipp has spearheaded the probe with assistance from just one other investigator. He now says it became more and more obvious to him since the start of this year that the inspector general’s office was not truly serving its ostensible role as an independent watchdog for the taxpayer-funded park district.

“With the OIG’s acquiescence, and much to the investigation’s detriment, the Park District increasingly inserted itself into the investigation as word spread about the investigation uncovering multiple incidents of severe criminal misconduct,” Kipp wrote.

To buttress that point, Kipp alleged that the inspector general’s office “provided real-time information regarding confidential aspects of its investigation” to a lawyer for the park district, who in turn shared those confidential details with the officials at the center of the probe. That blocked the investigators from pursuing certain avenues of inquiry, he said, without offering specifics.

“By allowing the Park District to meddle in the investigation, the OIG has caused its investigation irreparable harm,” Kipp wrote.

The park district inspector general’s office had operated in a manner unlike the “reputable” internal watchdogs at other public agencies in Chicago and Illinois, he said.

Inspector General: Investigation making ‘great strides’

Kipp also said Kelly and LaVelle had ignored requests to provide adequate resources for the investigation for more than a year.

Lightfoot and Kelly recently have said they thought the probe was not short on resources, and the mayor has opposed a proposal from two aldermen to draft the city government’s own, separate inspector general to help the park district with the issue.

Still, the office of the city of Chicago’s inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, has passed on information it received about lifeguard abuse to the state’s attorney’s office, a spokeswoman for Foxx told WBEZ on Monday. Ferguson and Foxx’s aides have declined to comment on what information was relayed to prosecutors. Nobody has been charged criminally in the probe.

Kipp is a lawyer who previously worked as an assistant inspector general for three years at the Chicago Public Schools, according to public records and his online LinkedIn profile. The CPS inspector general’s office is best known for its role in prompting the scandal-scarred resignations of two city schools’ chiefs, Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Forrest Claypool, in recent years.

On Thursday, Kipp expressed hope that the state’s attorney’s office would step in and go on to produce greater results than the investigation he once headed.

“I implore State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to intervene and direct her office to assume all control of the OIG’s investigation,” he said. “The dozens of survivors of sex crimes that have been brave enough to come forward deserve their justice, and all future Park District Lifeguards deserve to work in an environment free from the fear of being sexually assaulted, physically abused, or harassed.”

Foxx’s intervention, Kipp said, is the only way to “ensure that the investigation will be staffed with necessary resources and expertise, while also rescuing it from the Park District’s and its Board’s undue influence.”

In her statement, though, Little said she “remains optimistic” that the park district inspector general’s office “will bring closure to the victims and long-lasting changes to the Park District as a whole.”

She said the investigation has made “great strides.”

Similar allegations also have roiled Evanston’s beaches. WBEZ reported last month on a petition from 56 lifeguards and other Evanston beach workers who demanded an apology from city officials for what they said was a misogynistic and abusive workplace culture on the northern suburb’s lakefront.

The Evanston city manager is resigning, after the City Council hired the law firm of a former federal prosecutor to conduct an independent investigation.

And Evanston’s new mayor, Daniel Biss, has described the city’s response to the beach workers’ petition last year as a “serious institutional failure.”

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

Read the full statement from the Park District here and the statement from the Mayor’s office here.