Mayor Lightfoot Says There Is No Need For The City’s Investigator To Join Probe Into Lifeguard Abuse

lifeguard raft in a swimming pool
The probe into widespread sex abuse involving dozens of city lifeguards -- sometimes against underage girls -- has dragged on for more than a year. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
lifeguard raft in a swimming pool
The probe into widespread sex abuse involving dozens of city lifeguards -- sometimes against underage girls -- has dragged on for more than a year. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Mayor Lightfoot Says There Is No Need For The City’s Investigator To Join Probe Into Lifeguard Abuse

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday she opposed a proposal from two aldermen who want City Hall’s inspector general to join a long-running investigation of alleged sexual misconduct targeting female park district lifeguards – including some underage girls.

Citing WBEZ’s reporting on the “appalling,” widespread accusations at the Chicago Park Park District, 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack drafted the proposal, which was co-sponsored by Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd Ward.

For more than 16 months now, the office of the park district’s inspector general — a separate agency from the City Hall’s internal watchdog – has been investigating the allegations of serious, systemic misconduct against lifeguards.

Waguespack and Smith’s proposal called for city Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s much-larger office to join forces with its minuscule counterpart at the park district.

But Lightfoot told reporters Wednesday she thought that was “not necessary.” The mayor also disagreed with the park district’s inspector general, Elaine Little, who has argued that her office lacks the bandwidth to handle what she described as an unprecedented investigation.

“I don’t think the park district’s inspector general is under-resourced,” Lightfoot said. “That’s not where the issue is.”

In a report to top parks officials last week, however, Little argued that her office needs more funding “to hire additional investigative staff, provide appropriate training and adequately update its case management system.”

Referring specifically to the sexual misconduct probe, Little said the office’s “ability to fulfill the scope of its mission — including investigating this newest subject matter — is, to a large measure, dependent on having the necessary resources to do the work.”

According to the report, the inspector general’s office has a budget of a little more than $814,000 for the current fiscal year, and its payroll currently includes seven full-time employees and one part-timer, with unfilled openings for one full-time investigator and two part-timers.

Park district officials recently said they are hiring an outside law firm to assist Little’s office with the case. But the top parks officials have refused to identify that firm publicly and rejected WBEZ’s requests under the state’s open-records law for documents pertaining to the outside lawyers’ involvement.

The park district is a separate, so-called “sister agency” of the city government, but the mayor has the authority to appoint the park district’s chief executive and board. Lightfoot was elected more than two years ago but has kept the agency’s CEO, Michael Kelly, and board President Avis Lavelle – both of whom got picked for those roles by the previous mayor, Rahm Emanuel.

On Wednesday, Lightfoot also repeated her position that law enforcement agencies should conduct a “rigorous investigation” into any potential sex crimes at the park district.

“We have to take complaints of sexual assault, sexual harassment, very, very seriously, and I know that the park district does,” the mayor said. “We cannot have our young people, who their parents entrust to work in park district programs, feeling anything other than 1,000% safe.”

But Lightfoot did not want Ferguson’s office taking part in the probe at the park district, saying, “I don’t think that that’s necessary, I don’t think that’s where the challenge lies.”

Told of Lightfoot’s comments on his proposal, Waguespack said he had spoken with the mayor about it during the City Council meeting earlier Wednesday. But Waguespack said he would likely move ahead with the legislation, to see how the city’s inspector general would react.

Ferguson declined to comment Wednesday night, and Little did not return messages from WBEZ.

Waguespack said he and the mayor “both want to see this investigation opened up to the public and see resolution.”

For more than a year, the matter was kept out of the public eye – even as the park district was advertising to hire lifeguards as young as 15 for this summer. But in April, WBEZ revealed that the park district’s investigators reported finding ample evidence to back up allegations against three senior lifeguards.

The most serious case so far involved a lifeguard who investigators say likely “committed criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse” in 2018, when he allegedly forced a 16-year-old female lifeguard to perform a sex act on him and then tried to rape her.

But the parks investigators have made clear that they expect to issue more reports as they delve into similar allegations against “dozens of Chicago Park District employees in the Aquatics Department,” according to documents obtained by WBEZ. A subsequent WBEZ investigation found allegations of abuse from nearly a dozen women going back decades.

Many complaints of similarly harrowing experiences have surfaced also on Evanston’s lakefront, WBEZ reported last week. More than 50 female lifeguards and other beach workers in that northern suburb filed a petition last year with city officials, alleging widespread misconduct against young women and underage girls by co-workers, including superiors, at the town’s six beaches.

On Monday – three days after WBEZ’s report – Evanston officials announced that they would hire a law firm to conduct what they promised would be an independent inquiry into all aspects of the situation.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Mariah Woelfel covers city government. Follow them @dmihalopoulos and @MariahWoelfel.