A politically connected manager at the scandal-plagued Chicago Park District failed to report another employee’s sexual harassment allegation but faced only light discipline, according to documents obtained by WBEZ.
Maya Solis — a daughter of disgraced former Ald. Danny Solis — continues in her $126,072-a-year post as one of three region directors for the Park District, despite an internal investigation that found she learned about the sexual harassment allegation in 2018 and did not report it to the human resources department.
The Park District’s inspector general recommended earlier this year that administrators take “appropriate disciplinary action” against Solis. And the top HR official for the agency sent Solis a memo in April citing her “direct violation of the Chicago Park District’s sexual harassment policy.”
But the memo also shows Solis received only “verbal counseling” and an order to take three training sessions about harassment and “workplace conflict.”
Now, the female employee who says she was sexually harassed has filed a complaint against the Park District with the city’s Commission on Human Relations. The employee alleges she told Solis about her problem “on numerous occasions” before she went to the inspector general’s office last year, and she complained that the Park District has not further disciplined Solis, according to documents obtained through an open-records request.
The Park District has urged the Human Relations Commission to dismiss the complaint.
The ongoing dispute marks the latest problem with sexual misconduct accusations at the Park District — where a scandal involving abuse of lifeguards at beaches and pools led to the resignations of many top officials in 2021.
After a series of WBEZ reports on the topic, then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot forced out longtime parks chief Michael Kelly two years ago and replaced him with Rosa Escareño, who has promised to address the matter aggressively.
In a statement Wednesday, the Park District’s spokesperson did not answer any questions about the matter involving Solis, including how her discipline was determined.
But the spokesperson said officials have enacted reforms that included “more streamlined, confidential and accessible procedures for reporting complaints” because old policies had resulted in “inconsistent and often delayed responses.”
Alleged harassment at park in Roseland
Last year, a woman who has worked for the Park District for nearly 30 years went to the inspector general’s office to allege that the head of an advisory council at a park on the South Side sexually harassed her in 2013 and then engaged in a years-long “pattern of bullying” after she rebuffed him.
According to confidential I.G. documents obtained by WBEZ, the woman told an investigator that she was at an event at Fernwood Park, in the Roseland neighborhood, when she was introduced to the park advisory council’s president at the time, Kevin Jones.
The woman told an investigator with the I.G.’s office that Jones “stared at me up and down and gave me this unwanted look” before asking her, “Why you not in heels?” She said she replied that her job with the Park District did not require her to wear heels and she walked away feeling that Jones was “undressing her with his eyes,” the investigator wrote in a summary of the interview with the woman i.
The female employee said Jones approached her later at the same event and told her, “You’re ignoring me?” She alleged he asked her again why she did not wear heels and said to her, “You’re not going to answer my question?”
When the woman asked Jones why he kept asking about her shoes, she said he replied, “Because women are sexy in heels.”
The woman said she immediately told a park supervisor and another Park District official about what happened with Jones. But the supervisor “did not respond” at the time, according to records.
The woman who filed the complaint met in October 2018 with Jones, Solis and another Park District official at the time, Kimberly du Buclet, who recently became a Democratic Illinois House member. According to the complainant, the 2018 meeting marked the first time she confronted Jones about his comments to her at the park event in 2013, records show.
The woman alleged that Solis and du Buclet spoke to Jones at the meeting only “about the importance of getting along” with Park District employees. Their reaction, the complainant said, left her “in disbelief.”
After the meeting, the woman said, she told Solis and du Buclet that she would not agree to be around Jones and give him another “opportunity to sexually harass her again.”
Du Buclet left the Park District a few weeks after the meeting in 2018 and was not accused of violating any policies.
On Tuesday, du Buclet said she attended many meetings to try to smooth over conflicts between parks officials and community members but could not recall that meeting or the harassment accusation.
“That does not ring a bell,” du Buclet said.
‘Verbal counseling’ for violation of Park District policy
Because there were more confrontations between Jones and parks employees, the complainant said, she brought up the 2013 incident at another meeting with Solis and other Park District officials in July 2022. The woman said Solis responded this time by saying “something to the effect of ‘Me hearing you say this, now I feel really bad for you.’”
The woman told the I.G.’s office that the comment from Solis last year left her “astonished” and she “thought to herself ‘Where were you at back in 2018 when you sat with me in the meeting?’”
After opening an investigation into the woman’s complaint, the I.G.’s office interviewed Solis, records show. In their report on the probe in March, investigators wrote that Solis “had known that [the complainant] was ‘uncomfortable’ with Mr. Jones but did not know the reasons until the group meeting in 2018.”
The report said Solis also “believed the harassment had been addressed at the 2018 meeting because ‘the meeting concluded with the understanding of starting over and working together.’”
But the I.G. noted that the policy in effect at the time required supervisors to report allegations of sexual misconduct to the deputy director of the Human Resources Department.
A month after the I.G.’s office sent that report to top officials and to the Park District board, HR Director Argentene Hrysikos wrote to Solis, according to a copy of the document obtained by WBEZ through the station’s open-records request.
“This memo serves as a verbal counseling, regarding the [inspector general’s] report findings in regard to a sexual harassment investigation,” Hrysikos wrote to Solis on April 28.
Solis, who manages the Park District’s south region, did not respond to messages. Earlier this month, she appeared at an event for seniors at the Calumet Park fieldhouse with Escareño, the Park District’s CEO.
Solis’s father was a top ally of former Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel. Danny Solis began cooperating with federal investigators in 2016, when confronted with evidence of his own wrongdoing, according to court documents.
He retired from the City Council in 2019, after the Chicago Sun-Times reported he was secretly recording conversations with other allegedly corrupt top Illinois politicians, including then-Ald. Edward Burke and longtime Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Solis has been charged with bribery but under his “deferred prosecution agreement” with the feds, he can avoid being convicted and going to prison.
Jones banned from park advisory council
In the I.G.’s report to park district leaders earlier this year, investigators concluded that “the sequence of events” at Fernwood Park was “confirmed by witness interviews and by a review of emails sent contemporaneously with the events.”
The interim I.G. at the time, Alison Perona, also urged officials to “take appropriate administrative action” against Jones, who headed the volunteer park advisory council for about a decade.
Investigators wrote that Jones went to the interview on March 1 accompanied by an attorney and declined to answer questions about his accuser, records show. Jones told the I.G.’s office he did not remember the 2018 meeting where the complainant said she confronted him initially.
The Park District sent Jones a letter on April 21 permanently banning him from the Fernwood Park advisory council and every other park advisory panel. The letter from the park district’s risk management department said the I.G.’s office had “concluded that you bullied and harassed employees and violated Chicago Park District rules governing Park Advisory Council members.”
Jones declined to comment when reached last week by WBEZ. He has sued the Park District, his accuser and two other officials in Cook County Circuit Court in an effort to overturn his ban, arguing that the punishment was retaliation for blowing the whistle on other alleged problems at Fernwood Park.
On May 3, Jones’s accuser filed her complaint with the city’s Human Relations Commission. The Park District responded that the woman “fails to state a viable claim” and argued that “reasonable corrective measures were taken in response to any discriminatory conduct” within a short-enough time frame, according to the agency’s July 10 motion to dismiss the complaint.
Beaches and pools scandal looms over dispute
Park district investigators reported last year that they found proof to back up 29 allegations against employees in the Aquatics Department, concluding that “bullying, harassing and sexual misconduct flourished and went unchallenged.” Two former lifeguards have faced criminal charges in Cook County Circuit Court.
The watchdog’s office began its probe into sexual misconduct targeting lifeguards in 2020, after two young female former employers sent detailed letters to Lightfoot and Kelly.
But the probe remained out of public view for more than a year, until WBEZ reported on the “broad investigation” in April 2021. Before WBEZ’s story, top parks officials did not take any real action to respond to the problem, according to a report issued by a former federal prosecutor hired by the agency’s board.
By the time of that outside counsel’s report, Escareño had replaced Kelly as parks CEO, and she fired three other top officials whose names surfaced in that report.
Escareño also apologized to lifeguards and promised meaningful reforms, saying at a public forum on the scandal that the Park District was “not just giving you lip service here.”
But the employee who said she was sexually harassed at Fernwood Park told the I.G.’s office that she and others who work for the Park District remained skeptical, according to records from the probe.
The woman told an investigator that “she thought about coming forward when the sexual harassment came to light with the lifeguards but she remained quiet.”
“Although the district claims that there will be no tolerance for such behaviors,” she told the investigator, “employees are still doubtful.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.