Park District Watchdog: We Need More Money To Probe Sexual Misconduct Complaints

lifeguard raft in a swimming pool
Nearly a dozen women who worked as Chicago lifeguards spoke to WBEZ about experiencing sexual misconduct while working at the city’s beaches and pools. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
lifeguard raft in a swimming pool
Nearly a dozen women who worked as Chicago lifeguards spoke to WBEZ about experiencing sexual misconduct while working at the city’s beaches and pools. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Park District Watchdog: We Need More Money To Probe Sexual Misconduct Complaints

The Chicago Park District’s independent, internal watchdog said Thursday her office needs a bigger budget to adequately handle an unprecedented, ongoing probe into allegations of widespread sexual misconduct against lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools.

In a newly-issued public report, Park District Inspector General Elaine Little wrote that her office “requires appropriate funding to hire additional investigative staff, provide appropriate training and adequately update its case management system.”

“While understanding the Park District’s acute financial constraints during and immediately post-pandemic, the [inspector general’s office] finds its proposal to be a necessary use of Park District resources,” she wrote.

Little added that she was “cautiously optimistic” about getting what she was requesting.

Her call for an unspecified amount of additional funding comes after WBEZ revealed that the inspector general’s office has been conducting what it called a “broad investigation” into the sexual-misconduct allegations since the spring of 2020.

In confidential documents obtained by WBEZ, investigators said earlier this year the investigation was moving “as rapidly as possible” – but had taken so long partly due to “the dearth of Park District resources specifically dedicated to sensitive investigations of sexual abuse and sexual assault.”

In recent months, the inspector general’s office privately told top officials and the park district’s board that it found compelling evidence against three veteran lifeguards accused of sexual misconduct. None of the three men work for the park district any longer, and officials have said they banned the three from ever being re-hired.

One of the men has told WBEZ he did nothing wrong. The other two men did not return calls seeking comment. None of them have been charged with crimes.

But in the inspector general’s new report covering the last three months, the office said it had found “extensive, detailed and corroborated” evidence against the three former 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.

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.” The lifeguards work at more than 100 beaches and pools in the summer.

Little’s office also has promised to “address any systemic failings that its investigation uncovered.”

In April, Little told WBEZ her office “acted with urgency and dedicated a substantial amount of resources to conduct a comprehensive investigation.”

But on Thursday, she said the work on sexual-misconduct cases had taken the inspector general’s office into “matters that have not traditionally been under its investigative umbrella.”

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.

The office also gets “regular” help from law-enforcement agencies and was working on more than 40 cases as of the end of last month, records show.

Park district officials recently announced that they had hired outside lawyers to aid in the inspector general’s investigation of sexual wrongdoing. But officials have declined to say who those lawyers are or provide any other details of their new deal with the lawyers.

The investigation into abuses against lifeguards began in March 2020, after former lifeguards lodged complaints with the park district’s top official, Michael Kelly, and the office of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

One of the whistleblowers told the mayor’s office she had been sexually assaulted by a “more senior” employee when she was 17. The young woman alleged “a huge incidence of sexual violence within the Park District” and wrote that she believed there was “little support” from parks officials for lifeguards who report problems.

After news of the probe broke nearly three months ago, Lightfoot said she was closely monitoring the investigators’ work and urged them to finish their work as quickly as possible.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.