Ex-Chicago Lifeguard Who Detailed Abuse To Lightfoot ‘Very Disappointed’ In Mayor’s Response

Lifeguard
A second whistleblower whose complaint sparked a broad investigation into pervasive sexual misconduct among Chicago Park District lifeguards told WBEZ she's "very disappointed" in how Mayor Lori Lightfoot has handled the scandal. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Lifeguard
A second whistleblower whose complaint sparked a broad investigation into pervasive sexual misconduct among Chicago Park District lifeguards told WBEZ she's "very disappointed" in how Mayor Lori Lightfoot has handled the scandal. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Ex-Chicago Lifeguard Who Detailed Abuse To Lightfoot ‘Very Disappointed’ In Mayor’s Response

The young woman who sent a complaint letter last year to Mayor Lori Lightfoot alleging “a huge incidence of sexual violence” among Chicago Park District lifeguards now says she’s “very disappointed” in Lightfoot’s response to the scandal.

And the woman called on the mayor to fire her “arrogant” Parks chief, Michael Kelly, and the Park District’s board president, Avis LaVelle, over their handling of the internal investigation into sexual misconduct at the city’s beaches and pools that her letter sparked.

Now in her mid-20s, the woman wrote to Lightfoot on March 6, 2020 to tell the mayor she was “sexually assaulted” by a “more senior” Park District employee when she was 17. But she also alleged in her letter that the attack she suffered was only one part of a “toxic environment” in the lifeguarding corps that included rampant sexual misconduct — “from sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape.”

On March 17, 2020, the mayor’s office forwarded the complaint to Kelly, according to records obtained by WBEZ. Kelly’s office then passed on her complaint and another whistleblower letter — which had been sent to Kelly nearly six weeks earlier — to the Park District’s inspector general.

For more than a year after those two initial complaints, the inspector general’s investigation continued in secret. Then, in April, WBEZ revealed what had evolved into a “broad” probe into widespread complaints of pervasive abuse by employees against co-workers at the city’s public beaches and pools.

Earlier this month, the first whistleblower also expressed deep dissatisfaction with how the mayor and Kelly have dealt with the allegations, although that woman initially said it was not for her to say whether Lightfoot should fire Park District leaders.

But now, for the first time, the second whistleblower is speaking out about the city’s handling of the probe and the sudden suspension of its lead investigator this month. She agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity, which WBEZ generally grants to people who say they’ve been victims of sexual misconduct.

“I’m very disappointed with how Lightfoot has handled this,” the woman told WBEZ.

In a statement Sunday, a Lightfoot spokesman said the mayor’s office had “promptly acted upon” the woman’s complaint by forwarding it to the Park District and did not address the whistleblower’s call for the mayor to fire Kelly and LaVelle.

The office of the Park District’s inspector general has said it found evidence of serious sexual misconduct — including likely criminal sexual assault and abuse — implicating three veteran male lifeguards. Park District officials say the three men have since resigned.

But there have been complaints that dozens of workers in the Aquatics Department regularly preyed on underage, teen girls and young women. And investigators told Kelly, his top lawyer and the Park District board in March that they were engaged in a “larger, ongoing and highly sensitive review” that could also expose “any systemic failings,” records show.

In a series of interviews with WBEZ in recent weeks, the second whistleblower who wrote to the mayor described what she says happened to her when she was a lifeguard. She also grew increasingly critical of Lightfoot and Kelly.

The first-term mayor and her $230,000-a-year Parks chief have strenuously defended their handling of the matter. Kelly held a news conference last week to announce the suspensions of two high-level parks managers, and he said his long delay in sending the first whistleblower’s complaint to the parks’ internal watchdog had not negatively affected the probe.

But the woman who complained to Lightfoot told WBEZ that those statements offended her.

“He’s so arrogant to say he thinks he did the right thing and stands by what he did,” the woman said of Kelly. “I thought it was ridiculous that he said that publicly.

“He really doesn’t care at all,” she added. “He just cares about his image.”

In a statement Sunday, Park District officials said they were cooperating with the ongoing probe.

“Any actions we’ve taken have been in an effort to advance the investigation and bring meaningful, systemic change to our valuable workforce within the Beaches and Pools Unit and across the District,” the Park District said.

“It’s really political”

The young woman who shared the story of her own sexual attack with the mayor contacted WBEZ last month but said she only decided to speak publicly in recent days, after reading the interview with the other initial whistleblower.

The woman who complained to Lightfoot questioned why the mayor is allowing Kelly and LaVelle to keep their positions, despite the probe dragging on for 17 months. Both were appointed by Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel.

“I feel like it’s really political, which is how everything is in Chicago,” said the young woman, who worked as a Park District lifeguard for several years. “Kelly needs to step up his game a lot or they need to put someone there who will take it seriously.”

And on Sunday, the other female ex-lifeguard who wrote to Kelly in February 2020 said she now also hopes the Parks chief gets fired “because there needs to be consequences for his actions.”

Kelly — who has led the Park District for a decade — has said he has no plans to resign and has begun enacting reforms. Officials say those moves were intended “to protect the District’s workforce and eradicate the culture of misconduct that has long existed within the aquatics department.”

LaVelle has not returned any of WBEZ’s repeated messages seeking comment since April and has not publicly spoken about the sex abuse scandal in the lifeguard service. She once was the top spokeswoman for ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley and her public-relations firm has enjoyed a long list of clients with sensitive political interests, including the private concessionaires of the Chicago Skyway toll road and the city’s parking meter system.

The whistleblower also told WBEZ last week she is a firm supporter of Deputy Inspector General Nathan Kipp, who said he was suspended indefinitely without pay — and without explanation — on Aug. 12.

Kipp said last week that human resources personnel told him he was suspended at the direction of the “Park District’s Administration,” not his boss, Inspector General Elaine Little. Kipp said he believes the investigation “has really jumped the rails. I highly suspect this is going to be a whitewash.”

Little and Park District officials deny his allegations that parks administrators inserted themselves improperly into what should be an independent inquiry — and that they may even be engaging in a cover-up, as Kipp suggested.

But the woman who wrote to Lightfoot said of Kipp, “I definitely believe him. I definitely think they were obstructing him.”

She said she and two other lifeguards recruited “at least 15” co-workers to speak to Kipp and another investigator about sexual misconduct they witnessed while working at Park District-run beaches and pools. She said one investigator told her the inspector general’s office had fielded complaints from more than 30 teen girls and women.

The ex-lifeguard said she heard back from someone in the mayor’s office about a month after sending the letter to Lightfoot in March of last year, and she was promised quick action.

“The reason I wrote to Lightfoot was because Lightfoot was a woman,” she said recently. “I get that she had a lot going on. There’s COVID. There’s issues with the police. But I don’t feel she’s put as much effort into it as I would have liked. It doesn’t seem like she was in it to see it through.”

The ex-lifeguard said she agreed with Kipp’s suggestion that the Cook County state’s attorney’s office take over the investigation.

But Lightfoot’s spokesman again rejected that idea Sunday: “The most appropriate course at this point is to allow the IG to finish her work without any actions by anyone that could be viewed as trying to influence the findings or recommendations.”

A spokeswoman for the state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, said last week prosecutors have received information about abuse of Chicago lifeguards from City Hall’s inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, but declined further comment.

The bitter experience of “Complainant B”

The woman who wrote to Lightfoot last year says she chose to work as a lifeguard at the beach she went to most frequently with her family.

At first, she said, “I loved it. It was great.”

But she soon learned that “the way [employees] are at the beaches is extremely inappropriate.

“They’re always drinking, getting high, making sexual jokes,” she said. “It seemed normal to us because we never had another job. I thought, ‘This is the real world.’ Everybody was OK with it. The bosses were OK with it. Nobody said, ‘Don’t do this.’ Nobody said anything when [co-workers] would come up to you and call you ‘sexy.’ ”

But she later worked in other jobs and then realized it was different and better at most other workplaces, she said.

By then, though, she says she was sexually attacked by a much-older, male lifeguard in a supervisory position, while at an after-work party.

At the time of the alleged incident, the man had the position of mate — a middle manager at Chicago’s beaches — and later was promoted to the status of captain, she said. A WBEZ analysis of Park District payroll records shows the vast majority of captains and mates have been male.

During the party, the young woman said, the man was “crossed” — high on drugs and drunk simultaneously. The woman said he sat next to her on a couch and asked her sexually charged questions, including, “Are you a virgin?” and “Do you masturbate?”

She recalled, “I had no idea what to say. I was only 17.” She said she ignored those questions and tried to stay away from him.

But she said he kept making sexual comments to her during the party. He attacked her outside the house as they and others played basketball, while she went to retrieve a ball that fell between the garage and the alley, she said in an interview.

“He pushed me up against the garage and started making out with me aggressively, grabbing my butt, feeling me all over the place,” she said.

She said the attack ended only after she told him repeatedly to stop.

She later wrote to Lightfoot that, “When I tried to speak up about my experience, I was called a ‘kissy whore’ and a ‘slut’ by not only fellow coworkers, but also managers.”

In confidential documents from the inspector general’s probe — which refer to the woman as “Complainant B” — investigators say she did not make a report for fear of retaliation. And she told WBEZ that the managers who mocked her at the time surprisingly included an older, female lifeguard captain she had admired.

The verbal abuse only ended, she said, because “a friend who knew it was not consensual” told that fact to other workers at the beach. After that, the female captain who teased her instead “tried to help me avoid [the attacker] when he came to the beach,” the woman said.

Later, she said her attacker sexually harassed her at an end-of-season lifeguard banquet. Former lifeguards have told WBEZ that misconduct often was rampant at the annual banquets.

“A giant problem they aren’t dealing with”

It was several years later before she sent her letter to Lightfoot, she said.

“I was in denial,” she recently told WBEZ. “I realized it was sexual assault a couple years later. It’s so normalized in the Park District.”

The woman said she has referred to what had happened to her as sexual assault because of the definition of the term she was taught when she served as a volunteer for a crisis hotline for survivors. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, known as RAINN, defines sexual assault as including “fondling or unwanted sexual touching.”

Under Illinois law, criminal sexual assault involves penetration perpetrated by someone using “force or threat of force.” Criminal sexual abuse is defined as someone using or threatening to use force to commit an “act of sexual conduct,” such as touching or fondling.

The young woman said she finally wrote to Lightfoot early last year at the suggestion of a friend. The mayor’s office acknowledged it received her letter, but the woman said investigators did not tell her whether the supervisor she accused has been punished.

The alleged attacker continued to be listed on the Park District payroll, according to data obtained by WBEZ last month. But Parks officials have declined to identify everyone who has been suspended, citing the ongoing investigation.

Still, the whistleblower told WBEZ that she wants systemic change — not punishment for her attacker.

“I’m not out to get this person,” she said. “It happened a long time ago. But I’m trying to bring awareness to a giant problem in the Park District that they aren’t dealing with.”

In response to an open records request from WBEZ for the whistleblower’s letter to Lightfoot, the mayor’s office provided a copy with parts of it blacked out. Officials said they had concealed those sections to protect the woman’s privacy, under an exemption in the state’s freedom-of-information law. WBEZ filed a lawsuit against the mayor’s office to challenge the decision in June.

While the case is pending in Cook County Circuit Court, the woman provided the complete letter to WBEZ. Much of what city officials redacted from the copy given to the station was highly critical of Park District leaders.

In one part of the letter that the mayor’s office has hidden from public view, the ex-lifeguard wrote, “I told three of my close coworkers what had happened, and they replied that they were not surprised because similar things had happened to them. I was shocked.”

She wrote that she asked those co-workers if they filed reports about what happened to them.

“Some said that they had, but nothing was done about it,” she told Lightfoot in another section of the letter that the mayor’s office redacted. “Others said that there were too many hoops to jump through to make a report and that they weren’t taken seriously, so it was not worth it.”

In another part of the letter to Lightfoot that mayoral aides blacked out, the woman said a staff member “repeatedly made sexually inappropriate comments about the moms of the junior guards.”

She told her manager about that, she wrote. “But nothing came of it,” she told the mayor. “This individual was not even spoken to about his comments. Business continued as usual.”

At the end of the letter, the woman offered Lightfoot to “discuss this with you further.” The woman said she had not heard anything from the mayor’s office since being told the complaint would be referred to the proper authorities last year.

“It doesn’t seem like she’s taking it very seriously,” the ex-lifeguard said of Lightfoot. “She hasn’t followed up with me. She handed it off so she could just say someone else is handling it.”

The woman gave WBEZ an email showing she sent virtually the same complaint letter to Adam Bueling, the Park District’s manager of beaches and pools, on March 9, 2020, three days after the message to Lightfoot. She says she never received a response from Bueling.

Kelly, the city Parks chief, announced that the manager of beaches and pools was one of two high-level officials overseeing lifeguards who got put on paid suspension earlier this month.

Survivors “don’t know who they can trust”

Kelly himself has faced questions about why it took him 41 days after he got the first complaint letter before he referred the matter to the inspector general. It was during that gap that Lightfoot’s office received the complaint letter from the second whistleblower.

Kelly immediately promised the first whistleblower he would refer the matter to the park district’s internal watchdog, after receiving it on Feb. 7, 2020. But Kelly did not actually do that until March 19, 2020 — two days after Lightfoot’s office sent him the letter it got from “Complainant B” in early March.

The woman who wrote to Lightfoot said she doesn’t know the initial whistleblower but that Kelly’s delay in sending the first complaint to the inspector general was disturbing to her.

“I don’t think it would have gone anywhere if I hadn’t written to the mayor,” she said.

Ultimately, the woman said, the only officials she talked to about her complaint were Kipp, the recently-suspended deputy inspector general, and a second, female investigator.

The woman said investigators won her trust by assuring the probe’s independence from the Park District, but getting other lifeguards to talk about their experiences at the beaches and pools was a tough task initially.

“People are scared to make reports,” she said. “They don’t know who they can trust and who they can’t trust.”

As she and two friends recruited more co-workers as witnesses for the inspector general’s probe, the ex-lifeguard said investigators told her repeatedly that they were the only two employees assigned to the case and that they needed more resources.

“He was saying he really needs more help, that they were doing the best they could with what they were given but did not think he could make progress with what he had,” the woman said of Kipp.

She said Kipp, who’s from Wisconsin originally, was seen by her and the other complainants as a political outsider who was “a lot more trustworthy than anyone else” at the park district.

“I really like Nate,” she said. “He seemed like he was really dedicated to the cause. I know he would have liked to have stayed on.”

She said she had never met Little, the inspector general, and did not know of her until recent news reports about the investigation.

The other whistleblower who contacted Kelly last year also expressed support for Kipp . “The investigators have been great,” that woman said.

Asked about the survivors who spoke to him in the investigation, Kipp told WBEZ: “I definitely couldn’t imagine having the feeling that I couldn’t report it to anyone out of fear of retribution or that whatever I reported would not be taken seriously. I would hope that they would know that I have worked tirelessly and very aggressively to address the larger systemic issues throughout the administration.”

The mayor, Kelly and Little have said recently there are adequate resources for the internal investigation. Kelly and Little cited the hiring of an outside law firm to assist the inspector general with the probe.

And in a statement last week, Little said her office’s investigation was progressing and would bring “closure to the victims and long-lasting change to the Park District as a whole.”

But the woman who filed the complaint with Lightfoot said she hoped the criticism from her and the other whistleblower now would at last push City Hall and park district leaders “to actually do something, instead of ignoring everything.”

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