WBEZ has sued the Chicago Park District and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office to gain access to public documents about alleged sexual harassment and violence against female lifeguards at the city’s public beaches and pools.
The station first reported in April that the park district’s internal watchdog was conducting a “broad investigation” into complaints that dozens of workers regularly committed “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence, and other criminal acts” – sometimes against minors.
Investigators say they have found “extensive, detailed and corroborated” evidence against three former veteran lifeguards. They included a supervisor who was accused of forcing a 16-year-old girl who worked for him at a North Side beach to perform a sex act on him, then attempting to rape her.
The park district’s inspector general began the probe in March 2020, after female former lifeguards sent complaints to the park district’s top official and to Lightfoot’s office.
Officials have declined to provide many documents about the issue that WBEZ requested under the state’s open records law, in some cases citing the ongoing inspector general’s probe as reason for their refusal to be transparent.
Now, several lawsuits – filed recently on the station’s behalf by attorney Matt Topic and his colleagues – allege in Cook County Circuit Court that those denials by park district officials and the mayor’s aides are violations of Illinois law.
The park district documents that WBEZ has sought to win through the courts include:
The initial whistleblower letter that was sent to Michael Kelly, the park district’s superintendent and chief executive, in February 2020.
Any communications between Kelly and the female lifeguard who filed the complaint to him.
All communications about the handling of the investigation involving Kelly, park district board President Avis Lavelle and other board members.
Documents pertaining to the park district’s hiring of outside lawyers to aid the inspector general’s office with the sexual misconduct probe.
Personnel records for numerous public employees.
The Park District did not respond to requests for comment about the lawsuits.
WBEZ also has sued the mayor’s office to contest City Hall’s decision to redact portions of the whistleblower letter that Lightfoot’s office received in March 2020. The mayor’s office forwarded that second complaint letter to the park district, and the investigation began days later, according to confidential records obtained by WBEZ.
A spokeswoman for the Lightfoot administration’s Law Department said the city does not comment on pending litigation.
The investigation into sexual misconduct at the park district has dragged on for more than a year, and parks officials have kept it secret, even as they publicly recruited a new class of young lifeguards to work this summer.
After WBEZ first revealed the existence of the investigation into the park district’s Aquatics Department, nearly a dozen women came forward to level their own allegations of sexual misconduct at the beaches and pools.
They alleged teenage girls and young women at parks across Chicago have suffered a toxic, misogynistic work environment since the 1970s, with supervisors failing to act on complaints.
Former lifeguard Julie Tortorich said she was twice physically abused by a supervisor as a teenage lifeguard in the 1970s. Now 60, she called on officials to “open up your books.”
“Be transparent about everything,” Tortorich said. “Don’t redact anything. Don’t hide anything. Open it up because the women who have worked for the park district need to be recognized.
“There needs to be an apology. There needs to be just a recognition that, ‘Yes, this happened to you.’ ”
The park district’s inspector general, Elaine Little, has said her office lacks the resources to handle the unprecedented investigation, and two aldermen are proposing that City Hall’s own inspector general join the probe. But Lightfoot rejected that suggestion last week.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @dmihalopoulos.