Top Watchdog Over Chicago Parks District Lifeguard Investigation Resigns

Chicago Park District pool
Elaine Little, the top watchdog over the Chicago Park District's probe into allegations of sexual abuse in the lifeguard program, resigned Tuesday after WBEZ reported she had herself been the subject of an investigation into alleged conflicts of interest at a previous job. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Park District pool
Elaine Little, the top watchdog over the Chicago Park District's probe into allegations of sexual abuse in the lifeguard program, resigned Tuesday after WBEZ reported she had herself been the subject of an investigation into alleged conflicts of interest at a previous job. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Top Watchdog Over Chicago Parks District Lifeguard Investigation Resigns

The Chicago Park District’s inspector general resigned Tuesday in the middle of a long-running, internal parks probe into widespread, alleged sexual violence against young lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools.

Elaine Little’s resignation came hours after WBEZ reported that records show the inspector general was herself under an “extensive” investigation into “alleged conflicts and wrongdoing” when she quit her job as director of investigations at Cook County’s juvenile jail in 2018.

Little’s decision to step down comes after Mayor Lori Lightfoot for weeks staunchly defended the ongoing probe and its handling by Little, who was hired for the $140,000-a-year job as the park district’s top watchdog less than a year ago.

But on Tuesday, Lightfoot said she didn’t know about the previous county investigation until Monday and that it was “absolutely the right thing” for Little to resign.

“I think that had she remained in charge of this investigation, given what we now know, which she’s acknowledged about her background, would have cast a pall over all the work that was done…and that does a disservice to the victim,” the mayor said.

Reached on her cell phone Tuesday, Little hung up on a WBEZ reporter.

Investigation at county job

Court documents obtained by WBEZ indicate that the investigation at the juvenile jail centered on Little’s three-year relationship with another jail employee, who fathered a child with her during the time both worked there.

Little has said her job at the county involved overseeing investigations into all staff at the juvenile jail. But Little and the Office of Cook County’s chief judge — who oversees the juvenile jail — did not reply when asked if Little took part in any investigations of the co-worker who fathered a child with her.

Experts on government ethics had said the investigation into her alleged actions at the juvenile jail may raise questions for some about her ability to be impartial in other investigations.

Last month, Little had fired her deputy inspector general, Nathan Kipp, on the same day Kipp alleged that top parks officials were interfering in the office’s investigation. Little has not said why she suspended Kipp and then sent him a termination letter on Aug. 19, when he questioned the integrity of the lifeguard abuse probe in a statement to media and an interview with WBEZ .

Kipp’s personnel file showed no disciplinary problems until his suspension and he received a $10,000 raise in October, according to park district records.

Lightfoot voiced strong support for Little in the wake of Kipp’s dismissal, saying on Aug. 23 that she would await the findings of the inspector general’s investigation and expressing confidence in her work.

“The IG, I thought, put out a very robust statement just last week explaining exactly the independence of her investigation,” the mayor said last month. “I don’t have any reason to doubt what she put in writing and said.”

But on Tuesday, Lightfoot said she thought it right — for the integrity of the investigation — for Little to resign.

“The integrity of and the independence of the inspector general has to be maintained,” Lightfoot said. “I think her resignation was appropriate under the circumstances.”

The mayor said she was concerned about how the latest, dramatic turn in the lifeguard abuse scandal would appear to the survivors of sexual violence.

“I worry about what these victims are thinking today,” Lightfoot said. “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.”

The two former lifeguards who made the initial allegations in the probe had criticized Lightfoot’s response and called on the mayor to fire the park district’s longtime CEO, Michael Kelly. But Lightfoot pushed back last month, saying the comments being made in public to the media regarding the investigation were not helping matters.

“We’ve got to let the IG do their work without litigating this in the press,” she said in August. “That’s not appropriate.”

Lifeguards investigation dragged on

The investigation began in March 2020 and continued in secret for more than a year, until WBEZ reported in April that the internal probe was looking into dozens of complaints against employees who allegedly committed widespread sexual harassment, abuse and assault.

Officials say just three veteran lifeguards have quit as a result of the investigation by the inspector general.

But Kelly and other top parks officials have defended the probe and he predicted it would come to a successful conclusion this month.

Little also said the probe was making great strides and she predicted it would soon bring closure to survivors of abuse and reform to the entire park district.

Little, 38, previously worked for the city agency that investigates police shootings, and before that, she worked for nearly four years at the county’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

Little testified in a divorce deposition that she had a three-year, sexual relationship with another worker at the facility — where she has said she had authority to oversee investigations of all employees. The relationship led to the birth of a child in 2015, according to a transcript of her deposition in a divorce case with her then-husband, Curtis Tarver II. Little also testified that the co-worker who fathered her child paid for a trip to Belize as a birthday gift while both were still employed by the county juvenile lock-up.

Tarver, who’s now a Democratic state representative, told state and county officials about the relationship, alleging that it created a conflict of interest for Little as the juvenile jail’s top internal investigator.

The county closed the investigation without taking action against Little, writing to Tarver in 2018 that because she was quitting her post, the probe would cease.

There’s no indication in Little’s personnel file that she disclosed the investigation when she applied for the top park district watchdog job last year.

Park district officials did not reply when asked if they were aware of the investigation into Little at the county juvenile lock-up. They also have not said how they vetted Little before hiring her nor who made the decision to offer her the job after her predecessor, Will Fletcher, left to become the inspector general for the Chicago Public Schools.

Mayor says outside investigators needed

Avis LaVelle, the park district board president, released a statement as well Tuesday afternoon, defending the integrity of the probe.

“The Board has nothing to gain from anything less than a complete and exhaustive investigation,” LaVelle said in the statement. “The resignation of the [park district] Inspector General today will not deter the Chicago Park District from its goal to investigate and root out inappropriate behavior by Park District staff and/or management.”

LaVelle said the parks board “will retain counsel to complete its oversight and review of the investigators’ findings and to examine the handling of the issue and related policies and practices by Chicago Park District Management.”

The mayor said the outside investigators should be brought on board quickly and that the parks board — which she appoints — should “hire a true independent investigator to pick up the work that has been done to date.”

The outside investigators, Lightfoot said, must be experienced in such investigations and have reputations that are “beyond reproach.”

The mayor said she would welcome an investigation by the Cook County state’s attorney, Kim Foxx. Foxx’s office said last month it received information about lifeguard abuse from City Hall’s inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, but declined further comment.

Nobody answered the phone at the office of the park district’s inspector general and calls to the office’s hotline went to voicemail on Tuesday afternoon.

WBEZ city government reporter Mariah Woelfel contributed.

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