Your NPR news source
Lifeguard door at a Chicago Park District pool

The Chicago Park District’s politically connected board president, Avis LaVelle, sent a personal text message to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and asked to speak with her, according to a copy of the message obtained by WBEZ.

Manuel Martinez

'Can u call me?' the park district board president texted to Kim Foxx as lifeguard abuse scandal deepened

As the sex abuse scandal involving lifeguards was deepening this past summer, the Chicago Park District’s politically connected board president, Avis LaVelle, sent a personal text message to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and asked to speak with her, according to a copy of the message obtained by WBEZ.

Foxx firmly rebuffed LaVelle’s request -- quickly responding instead with a curt and formal letter, informing park district leaders that law-enforcement authorities had opened an active investigation into allegations of sex crimes and official misconduct.

In her text message to Foxx, LaVelle did not specify what she wanted to tell or ask the state’s attorney. But LaVelle sent the message to Foxx at 10:02 a.m. on Aug. 19 -- 97 minutes after WBEZ first reported that the lead investigator in the park district’s internal lifeguard abuse probe was removed and that he called on Foxx to intervene, records obtained by the station show.

Three days before that text message from LaVelle, Foxx’s office told WBEZ that prosecutors received and was reviewing unspecified information about the lifeguard abuse allegations from City Hall’s separate inspector general.

In an email to WBEZ Wednesday, LaVelle said she wanted to talk to Foxx about the park district scandal.

“I had heard media reports that her office would be conducting an investigation, but the Park District had not received any official notification,” LaVelle said. “I also wanted to assure her of my full cooperation, wherever her probe of the Chicago Park District may lead.”

WBEZ received a copy of LaVelle’s text message to Foxx through an open-records request to the state’s attorney’s office.

A screenshot of an imessage

WBEZ received a copy of Avis LaVelle’s text message to Kim Foxx through an open-records request to the state’s attorney’s office.

Public Records request/WBEZ

The station has reported that Foxx’s office sent a letter in August to LaVelle and other top parks leaders informing them of their investigation into the matter. In that letter, Foxx also told LaVelle, other park district board members and the agency’s then-chief executive that their lawyers should direct any questions they may have about the abuse investigation to her top deputy.

In a statement this week, a spokeswoman for Foxx acknowledged that the state’s attorney sent the letter to the park district because of LaVelle’s text message. And the spokeswoman, Cristina Villareal, told WBEZ that Foxx has not replied to LaVelle’s request for a conversation with her.

“The only communication the State’s Attorney has had with Ms. LaVelle has been a written letter that was sent on August 19, 2021 in response to a text message the State’s Attorney received from Ms. LaVelle on the morning a former Chicago Park District Deputy Inspector General released a statement, which included allegations of sexual abuse and impeding investigations,” according to the statement from Foxx’s office.

LaVelle says she welcomes Foxx’s investigation because “the young women who suffered abuse at the hands of [park district] employees deserve full and complete answers and criminal prosecution wherever it may be warranted.”

And LaVelle said she had “complete confidence that the investigation will uncover no wrongdoing on my part, nor of any board member.”

The text message emerged into public view as some critics of the park district have called on LaVelle to resign the post, which she has held for nearly three years.

On Tuesday, LaVelle and other top parks leaders held a news conference to release a new report from a former federal prosecutor hired by the park district to review management’s response to allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and assault from lifeguards at Chicago’s public beaches and pools.

The special counsel’s report focused in great part on alleged violations of park district policy and other missteps by Michael Kelly, the longtime chief executive and general superintendent for the city’s parks department.

The outside lawyers’ report for the park district also said park district leaders knew about allegations of serious sexual misconduct for more than a year but did not begin working in earnest to institute reforms until April. That was when WBEZ first reported on the allegations against dozens of employees in the park district’s Aquatics Department.

There was no mention of LaVelle’s text message to Foxx in the 40-page special counsel’s report released this week. The author of the report, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Valarie Hays, wrote that she reviewed more than 15,000 documents from the park district, the agency’s inspector general’s office and a law firm hired to assist the inspector general in its investigation of the lifeguard abuse complaints.

But Hays did not include personal emails or text messages among the long list of records that her investigation covered. In the report, Hays wrote that she had found no evidence of “intentional interference” in the park district’s internal probe.

And at the news conference on Tuesday, LaVelle repeatedly sought to minimize her culpability, noting that she’s not paid to be the parks board president and is not involved in day-to-day operations.

LaVelle said she had believed Kelly’s promise that he was making the necessary changes -- but that management did not tell the truth to the volunteer parks board that’s appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council.

“There’s a trust factor there,” LaVelle said. “We don’t work for the Chicago Park District. We know what management and staff tell us. Most of us hold full-time jobs elsewhere. We’re not in their offices with them.”

‘GM, Kim. It’s Avis.’

On Aug. 16, Foxx’s office told WBEZ that prosecutors received information about the alleged abuse of Chicago lifeguards from the city government’s inspector general at that time, Joseph Ferguson. The state’s attorney’s office declined further comment on the matter and did not say what Ferguson told prosecutors.

Then, at 8:25 a.m. on Aug. 19, WBEZ reported that the park district’s deputy inspector general, Nathan Kipp, issued a statement revealing he had been removed from the lifeguard abuse case without explanation.

Kipp wrote, “I implore State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to intervene and direct her office to assume all control of the [park district inspector general’s office] investigation.”

Foxx’s involvement, Kipp said in the statement, would be the only way to “ensure that the investigation will be staffed with necessary resources and expertise, while also rescuing it from the Park District’s and its Board’s undue influence.”

Within two hours, LaVelle reached out to Foxx. According to the records obtained from the state’s attorney’s office, LaVelle wrote, “GM Kim, it’s Avis. Can u call me when u get a minute?”

Before that, the last text messages between LaVelle and Foxx were exchanged early last year. On March, 17, 2020 -- the night Foxx won the Democratic primary in her re-election campaign -- LaVelle wrote, “Congratulations!!”

Two days later, Foxx replied, “Thanks!!!”

Another time, LaVelle offered to send Foxx “some remarks to consider for your election night speech.”

LaVelle asked Foxx, “Are u ok with me sending them?”

Foxx replied by sending her personal political email address, and LaVelle then wrote, “It’s on the way.” Foxx gave a thumbs up emoji to that message.

Asked Wednesday about her relationship with Foxx, LaVelle said she considers her “a professional colleague with whom I have exchanged texts a few times in the past.”

But Foxx did not respond to the text message from LaVelle on Aug. 19, according to the records obtained by WBEZ from the state’s attorney’s office.

“The Cook County State’s Attorney has not spoken with Ms. LaVelle on the investigation,” Villareal said.

Foxx has been criticized in the past for discussing issues her office was handling in text messages, particularly after her 2019 decision to drop all charges against TV star Jussie Smollett.

In the case of the lifeguard abuse scandal, however, a letter was quickly drafted and sent to LaVelle and other top park district officials at 2:19 p.m. on Aug. 19, a little more than five hours after LaVelle’s text message to Foxx.

In the letter, Foxx told the park district leaders her office was conducting an active investigation into complaints 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.”

The state’s attorney concluded by making clear that the park district leaders were not welcome to contact her directly.

If questions arose about the topic, Foxx wrote, LaVelle and the other park district officials should “feel free to have your legal representative contact First Assistant Risa Lanier.” She is the state’s attorney’s top aide.

WBEZ obtained that letter and revealed the existence of the state’s attorney’s investigation on Sept. 16.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she did not know about the letter or the investigation until WBEZ asked about it weeks after LaVelle and Kelly received it. The mayor has said that was “a mistake” and Kelly and LaVelle should have notified her of the letter from Foxx.

LaVelle’s long history in Chicago politics

LaVelle has been the president of the park district board since she was appointed to the position by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in February 2019. He had appointed her to the board more than 10 years ago, soon after he was first elected.

Her ties to the highest levels of Chicago politics, though, stretch back decades. LaVelle was a press secretary to former Mayor Richard M. Daley and she also worked at one point for President Bill Clinton’s administration.

For 17 years, she has owned and operated A. LaVelle Consulting Services LLC, a public-relations firm that has enjoyed contracts with many local government agencies and with clients who have lucrative deals at City Hall, including the company that runs the Chicago Skyway toll road, records show.

Lightfoot has dodged questions about LaVelle’s future at the parks board. But on Wednesday, Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd, became the third City Council member to call for Lavelle to resign, following Scott Waguespack, 32nd, and Michele Smith, 43rd.

Rodriguez Sanchez said LaVelle “needs to step down alongside all who had a role in covering up or not doing their due diligence to address this disaster. Chicago Park District needs new leadership that is up to the task of making our parks safe and creating structures of accountability.”

Waguespack, the Council’s Finance Committee chairman, said LaVelle should take responsibility for the long delay in enacting reforms in response to the lifeguard abuse scandal.

On Thursday after this story was published, four more aldermen called for LaVelle’s removal from the park district board. They were Andre Vasquez, 40th; Gilbert Villegas, 36th; Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th; and Matt Martin, 47th.

“Any senior park district official who knew about these incidents, whether they were an employee or a member of the board, and did not move quickly and decisively needs to step down,” Martin said.

Last week, WBEZ reported that the interim inspector general at the time prepared a detailed briefing on the growing investigation into lifeguard abuse for LaVelle and Kelly in August 2020. Although LaVelle told WBEZ she could not specifically recall that briefing, the document was cited extensively in the special counsel’s report released Tuesday.

The “highly confidential” document revealed that the internal probe quickly morphed into something much bigger than the two original complaints. Within five months, investigators had fielded complaints against “34 subjects” accused of serious misconduct at seven park district beaches, three pools and “offsite” lifeguard parties.

The interim inspector general said potential criminal allegations could necessitate the involvement of law enforcement, but that did not happen for nearly another year.

Foxx’s spokeswoman, Villareal, said this week the state’s attorney’s probe is ongoing, with investigators from the office’s sex crimes and public corruption units continuing to work on the case. Foxx’s office “remains committed to investigating allegations of sexual abuse at the Chicago Park District,” Villareal said.

Last month, Foxx took the unusual -- but not unprecedented -- step of publicly caling on survivors of sexual abuse at the park district to come forward and contact her office on a hotline, (312) 603-1944.

The park district had launched its own internal investigation in March 2020, after two young female former lifeguards sent detailed, graphic letters alleging serious misconduct against them and others to Kelly and the mayor’s office.

But the investigation dragged on for nearly 17 months before Foxx’s office got involved.

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

The Latest
Investigative reporter Jamie Kalven is urging the Chicago Police Department to do more to root out racist officers from within its ranks. A recent WBEZ-Sun-Times investigation found dozens of current and former CPD officers had joined the extremist organization the Oath Keepers. In his new piece in The Intercept, Kalven argues the problem of extremism goes much deeper than officers belonging to hate groups. And he says the department’s own complaint files hold the key to identifying officers who - in his words - “practice racism as sport.” Reporter: Jamie Kalven, Patrick Smith Host: Mary Dixon