Chicago’s park district chief resigns over a lifeguard sex abuse scandal

Park District CEO Michael Kelly at a press conference on the beach
Park District CEO Michael Kelly at a press conference Monday, August 16, 2021, at a beach on the city's South Side. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ
Park District CEO Michael Kelly at a press conference on the beach
Park District CEO Michael Kelly at a press conference Monday, August 16, 2021, at a beach on the city's South Side. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ

Chicago’s park district chief resigns over a lifeguard sex abuse scandal

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Longtime Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly quit Saturday, hours after Mayor Lori Lightfoot called for his firing over a widespread and expanding sex abuse scandal involving lifeguards at city beaches and pools.

Park District Board President Avis LaVelle confirmed news of Kelly’s resignation to WBEZ Saturday night. After weeks of dodging questions about Kelly’s future, Lightfoot said in a statement Saturday that the park district board should fire him immediately over his response to the explosive allegations.

Lightfoot said she had expressed that position when she attended part of Friday’s special, closed-door park district board meeting on the future of Kelly, who held the $230,000-a-year post for more than a decade.

“The culture of sexual abuse, harassment, and coercion that has become pervasive within the District’s Aquatics Department lifeguard program under his leadership, combined with the Superintendent’s lack of urgency or accountability as new facts have come to light, is unacceptable,” Lightfoot said in a statement sent to WBEZ on Saturday.

Kelly and other parks officials repeatedly defended their handling of the matter since WBEZ first reported in April that the park district’s inspector general was probing complaints of sexual harassment, abuse, assault and other misconduct against dozens of employees in the Aquatics Department.

But in her statement Saturday, Lightfoot referred to this week’s resignation of a 32-year-old male supervisor at Humboldt Park, who was accused of sexual misconduct against a 16-year-old female lifeguard.

The mayor brushed aside Kelly’s promises of reform.

“Despite prior claims of new training, new procedures, and new personnel, the failings of the current Park District Administration’s response to new allegations of harm to a child persists and simply cannot be tolerated one day longer,” Lightfoot said. “Therefore, in my estimation, it is time for new leadership immediately.”

In his resignation letter, Kelly said, “I have always had the best interests of our patrons and our employees at heart.” A statement from the park district said the board would work with Lightfoot to appoint an interim CEO.

Lightfoot’s strongly-worded statement came as a growing number of City Council members called for Kelly to step down over his handling of the matter, which has attracted the attention of law enforcement authorities in recent months.

On Friday, park district board members met behind privately for 3-½ hours – but took no action. LaVelle would only say they discussed “various employment and personnel issues” after hearing from a former federal prosecutor hired last month to look at the parks administrators’ reaction to the allegations from lifeguards as young as 16.

At a news conference in August, Kelly said he would not resign and promised a quick resolution to the internal investigation. At the time, Kelly predicted he would bring reform quickly to the public beaches and pools, where former lifeguards told WBEZ they have suffered from a misogynistic and abusive workplace culture for decades.

But since then, pressure on Kelly has grown steadily, with the park district’s inspector general resigning last month after previously enjoying the vocal backing of Kelly and Lightfoot.

“Families trust the Park District with their precious children,” Lightfoot said Saturday. “They have a right to expect that their children will be safe and protected.

“Also, Park District employees deserve leadership who share their closely held values, namely, protecting our children against predators and bullies, and believing survivors of sexual abuse.”

Meanwhile, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has opened her own criminal investigation. This week, Foxx took the rare and dramatic step of publicly asking victims of sexual violence at the park district to step forward and contact prosecutors on a new hotline to her office, at 312-603-1944.

And on Friday, the 18-member Progressive Caucus in the City Council added their voices to the calls for Kelly to resign.

Among the Council members who previously said Kelly should go: Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward; Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd Ward; Michele Smith, 43rd Ward; Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward; Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th Ward; and Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward.

The park district inspector general had investigated the sexual misconduct allegations in secrecy for more than a year, until WBEZ revealed the existence of the probe in April. Documents obtained by WBEZ show investigators found evidence corroborating allegations of serious sexual misconduct against three senior lifeguards who no longer work for the park district.

But the records show two initial complaints in early 2020 quickly morphed into something much bigger.

The park district is responsible for scores of beaches and pools. Some of the lifeguards work year-round, but many others are hired seasonally, and can be as young as 15 at the start of the summer.

Kelly received the first complaint of “extreme abuse” at the city’s iconic North Avenue Beach from a then-17-year-old former lifeguard on Feb. 7, 2020. He immediately promised the girl he would send her highly detailed, 11-page report on lifeguard misconduct to the inspector general’s office for a complete investigation.

But Kelly did not do that for 41 days. And he forwarded the initial report to the inspector general only after a second woman sent a separate complaint to Lightfoot, which was forwarded to the park district’s leadership.

The first complainant, who is now 19, told WBEZ that Kelly contacted her family after news of the investigation became public earlier this year, telling her he was under heavy pressure and asking her to let him know if she learned more about the course of the probe.

Nathan Kipp, the park district’s former deputy inspector general, has said there was “definitely an implicit intimidation factor” in Kelly’s conversation with the young woman. Kipp also said top parks officials interfered in the probe and that the inspector general’s office had shied away from interviewing Kelly.

Park district leaders denied Kipp’s allegations – and Kipp was fired on the same day he spoke out, in August.

The second whistleblower told Lightfoot’s office that “managers” at the park district disregarded and even mocked her allegations of being sexually assaulted at age 17 by another, higher-ranking employee, so she feared retaliation and did not formally report the incident.

Her experience, the woman said, was typical in an Aquatics Department rife with everything “from sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape.” And she alleged it was “very difficult for a report to get escalated” when misconduct was reported, and that perpetrators often ended up suffering only “mild” consequences.

Both of the initial whistleblowers told WBEZ in August that they were deeply disappointed by Lightfoot’s handling of the scandal and that they thought the mayor should fire Kelly.

At the time those comments were published, Lightfoot replied that she understood the “anger” of the whistleblower who wrote to her office, but said she would await the results of the inspector general’s investigation before forming her opinion.

“We’ve got to let the I.G. do their work without litigating this in the press,” the mayor said on Aug. 23. “That’s not appropriate.”

Lightfoot’s tone changed markedly, though, when Park District Inspector General Elaine Little resigned in September – hours after WBEZ revealed that she herself had quit a previous government probe while under investigation for alleged conflicts and other wrongdoing.

“I worry about what these victims are thinking today,” Lightfoot said on Sept. 14, when Little resigned. “I worry about whether or not they believe they are being treated fairly, that their allegations are being treated with the seriousness that they deserve.”

Days after Little’s resignation, park district officials hired former federal prosecutor Valarie Hays to continue the inspector general’s work. And Kelly hired a consultant to create what he touted as a new “Office of Protection” in the park district by the end of the year.

But Foxx had already opened her own investigation. On Aug. 19, she sent a letter to Kelly and LaVelle informing them that her office had begun looking into the park district’s reaction to the lifeguard abuse scandal.

Foxx wrote that prosecutors were investigating 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.”

And Foxx said this week she has assigned investigators with expertise in sex crimes and public corruption to the park district case.

But Lightfoot said she only learned of the criminal investigation after WBEZ obtained a copy of Foxx’s letter – nearly a month after Kelly and LaVelle received it.

“Of course, I should have known about [the state’s attorney’s investigation] at the time that Mike Kelly and Avis LaVelle were notified,” Lightfoot said. “I’ve made very clear that that was a mistake.”

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