Cook County Prosecutors Opened A Criminal Investigation Into The Lifeguard Sex Abuse Scandal

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx
In this Feb. 22, 2019 file photo, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx speaks at a news conference, in Chicago. Her office has launched an investigation into the Chicago Park District's handling of a lifeguard abuse scandal. Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx
In this Feb. 22, 2019 file photo, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx speaks at a news conference, in Chicago. Her office has launched an investigation into the Chicago Park District's handling of a lifeguard abuse scandal. Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press

Cook County Prosecutors Opened A Criminal Investigation Into The Lifeguard Sex Abuse Scandal

The office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has opened an investigation into the Chicago Park District’s handling of allegations of widespread sexual violence targeting lifeguards at the city’s public beaches and pools, according to documents obtained Thursday by WBEZ.

In a letter to the top two park district officials nearly a month ago, Foxx informed them 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.”

Foxx wrote that her office was acting on information that prosecutors had received from the inspector general for Chicago’s city government, Joseph Ferguson.

“We are in the process of evaluating the validity of the complaints,” Foxx said. “The office is committed to conducting careful and thorough evaluations of such complaints.”

In a statement Thursday, a spokesman for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the mayor did not know of the letter until now, and welcomed the investigation from Foxx’s office.

“The mayor was previously not aware of the letter,” said the spokesman, Cesar Rodriguez. “She welcomes the involvement of the State’s Attorney’s office. The mayor believes the allegations of the victims represent serious misconduct and that the State’s Attorney should open a criminal investigation and follow the facts where they lead.”

The letter was addressed to the park district board president, Avis LaVelle, and the agency’s longtime CEO and general superintendent, Michael Kelly. Both were appointed by Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel. Foxx also copied the entire park district board on the letter.

The letter from Foxx was sent on Aug. 19 — the same day the park district’s deputy inspector general, Nathan Kipp, publicly accused top park district officials of attempting to “impede and obstruct” a wide-ranging, long-running internal investigation into parks supervisors preying on young female lifeguards, including minors.

The park district’s inspector general, Elaine Little, sent Kipp a termination letter on that day, but did not give any reason for firing him.

Then on Wednesday, Little resigned from her post as inspector general. That’s after WBEZ reported that Little herself was the subject of an “extensive,” year-long investigation into “alleged conflicts and wrongdoing” that ended only when she resigned from her previous job at Cook County’s juvenile jail.

After previously defending Little, Lightfoot on Wednesday said her resignation was appropriate, calling it necessary for the integrity of the lifeguard probe. And Lightfoot said that she thought there should be an investigation by the state’s attorney, if one was not already under way.

Now, Foxx’s email to the park district indicate that the prosecutors already had been reviewing the park district’s probe itself — and the reaction to the scandal from leaders of the agency, who are chosen by the mayor.

In a statement to WBEZ Thursday, a spokeswoman for Kelly and LaVelle confirmed officials received the letter from Foxx and said, “We welcome the State’s Attorney’s involvement and support their efforts to prosecute those whose actions are punishable by law.”

Foxx’s office provided a copy of the letter in response to an open-records request from WBEZ. Her office on Thursday declined comment on the probe.

It’s not clear what information Ferguson received and relayed to the state’s attorney. But the park district has its own watchdog, which is supposed to be independent of parks leaders and began its investigation into sexual misconduct against lifeguards early last year.

Investigation began in March 2020

The park district inspector general’s investigation started with two complaints from young women who used to be lifeguards and who sent whistleblower letters to Lightfoot and Kelly, who is paid $230,000 a year and has held the job since 2011.

The park district probe quickly morphed into what investigators have called a “broad” review of allegations that dozens of employees at the city’s pools and beaches regularly committed “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence, and other criminal acts” — sometimes against minors.

Confidential reports obtained by WBEZ show investigators with the park district were looking into specific incidents “as well as threats of retaliation made by supervisors and peers to silence Park District lifeguards from reporting such misconduct.”

The inspector general’s office also wrote that it was looking into “allegedly toxic and dangerous work environments at several Park District beaches and aquatics centers” and “unacceptable workplace behaviors that the Aquatics Department’s management failed to address.”

Earlier this year, the inspector general’s office had gathered evidence corroborating accusations against three veteran male lifeguards – including one incident involving the alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of a 16-year-old girl who worked at a beach on the North Side. Nobody has been charged criminally in the investigation, although the park district’s watchdog said at the time that its investigation was “wide-ranging, comprehensive and robust,” with more reports to come.

Complaint of interference in probe

But Kipp, the former deputy inspector general, said last month that top park district officials had interfered with the probe and sought to bring it to a quick conclusion that would minimize what had happened. He said he made those statements after getting unfairly taken off the probe, which he had led for about 16 months.

At the time, Kipp also called on the state’s attorney to open her own investigation. He argued that it would be the only way that the victims and the public could be confident that the matter was being dealt with appropriately at this point.

Kipp’s boss, Little, and park district officials denied his allegations and said the watchdog’s office operated independently — as it is supposed to do.

Little said at that time that the investigation was progressing well, and she predicted that it would lead to justice for the victims of sexual abusers and widespread reform across the park district.

Little did not say why Kipp was fired, and he has said he was disciplined unfairly.

Before his suspension and firing last month, Kipp had no marks against his record, according to a copy of his personnel file provided to WBEZ by parks officials in response to an open-records request.

The records also show the park district gave Kipp a $10,000 raise in October, six months after he was hired as deputy inspector general.

On Thursday, Kipp said he wanted to “thank Kim Foxx for directing her office to take this important action.”

In a statement, Kipp said an independent criminal investigation “is a necessary step in exposing and rectifying the alleged criminal activity that apparently exists throughout the Park District’s Beaches & Pools Unit, along with the purported wrongdoing in the District’s Administration and Board of Commissioners.”

In an interview last month with WBEZ, Kipp had said the investigation “should really go all the way to the top” of the park district hierarchy.

‘Implicit intimidation’ by parks CEO?

The park district’s internal probe had proceeded in secrecy for more than a year, until WBEZ revealed the existence of the investigation in April.

Since then, many female former lifeguards have come forward to tell the station about what they described as a misogynistic and abusive workplace culture on the city’s lakefront and at public pools across Chicago since as far back as the 1970s.

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 they are as young as 15 at the start of the summer.

Kelly, the park district’s chief executive, received the initial complaint of “extreme abuse” at North Avenue Beach from a then-17-year-old former lifeguard on Feb. 7, 2020.

The parks chief 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, and her aides relayed those allegations to the park district.

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

Kipp, the former deputy inspector general, has said there was “definitely an implicit intimidation factor” in Kelly’s conversation with the young woman.

The second whistleblower, the woman who wrote to Lightfoot, said “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.

She also said the park district was rife with everything “from sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape,” records show.

“I have both heard and witnessed more horrifying stories about employees experiencing sexual violence: employees being groped, individuals being forced to make-out, managers giving unwanted attention to female employees,” she wrote.

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 last month that they were deeply disappointed by Lightfoot’s handling of the scandal and that they thought the mayor should fire Kelly.

Outside law firm to finish probe

Emanuel also picked the park district’s board president, LaVelle, who was a high-ranking aide to another former mayor, Richard M. Daley. LaVelle has a public-relations firm whose clients have included many local-government agencies and the private concessionaires who profit from the city’s parking-meter system and the Chicago Skyway toll road.

LaVelle said this week that the park district would hire an outside law firm to complete the inspector general’s investigation.

And Kelly has repeatedly defended his handling of the sexual-abuse allegations in recent weeks. He held a news conference at a beach on the South Side last month to announce disciplinary actions against employees, including the suspensions of two officials who oversaw pools and beaches.

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 they are as young as 15 at the start of the summer.

The agency’s tiny office of the inspector general had sought more resources to investigate what Little described in July as an unprecedented investigation into lifeguard abuse.

But Lightfoot rejected a proposal from two aldermen who called on City Hall’s inspector general to aid the park district probe, with the mayor saying she was confident that the parks investigators had all they needed to complete the job as swiftly as possible.

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