Chicago Parks Chief Delayed Investigation into Lifeguard Abuse

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Within 12 hours of receiving a detailed, long and disturbing letter of complaint from a former lifeguard last year, the Chicago Park district chief promised the young woman that he would follow up on her allegations of “Extreme abuse” against employees and other misconduct within the agency. Aquatic service, according to newly obtained documents.

“Thank you for your courage and your call for change,” wrote Michael Kelly, longtime general superintendent and general manager of the Parks District, in a February 7, 2020 email obtained by WBEZ.

But he broke his promise to the young woman for 41 days, according to the archives.

Kelly’s office did not deliver the whistleblower’s initial letter to the Park District Inspector General until March 19, 2020. It was two days after Chicago mayor’s assistants Lori Lightfoot forwarded Kelly a distinct but even more disturbing complaint from another young woman.

The pair of graphic and passionate letters showcases what has become a “large” internal probe following complaints that dozens of water department employees routinely commit sexual harassment, abuse and assault against teenage girls and young female employees in the park district, a WBEZ investigation for the first time has revealed.

Three veteran rescuers accused of serious sexual misconduct have left the park district, and investigators said they are investigating many more cases and any “systemic” issues that may have allowed the problems to persist.

But the investigation has dragged on for more than 16 months. The Park District Inspector General recently asserted that his office lacks the resources to deal with the unprecedented investigation, although Lightfoot challenged this notion.

In a statement in June, Kelly said he “took immediate action” when first made aware of the alleged abuse.

But WBEZ first reported in April that it took Kelly nearly six weeks to forward the young woman’s complaint to the Inspector General. Park District officials have repeatedly declined to answer questions about the immediate action taken by Kelly – and why her office took as long as it did to convey the original complaint.

Kelly – who is paid $ 230,000 a year – has repeatedly refused to give an interview to WBEZ about his role in the case, as has the chairman of the park district board, Avis LaVelle. Lightfoot’s predecessor Rahm Emanuel appointed Kelly and LaVelle to these positions

They did not return any messages on Wednesday. The park district spokesperson declined to comment.

On Thursday, Lightfoot repeatedly refused to answer reporters’ questions about whether she thought Kelly had acted quickly enough or whether he should be reprimanded for waiting almost six weeks before forwarding the initial complaint to the Inspector General of the park district.

“When these allegations arise, they must be taken seriously and action must be taken quickly,” Lightfoot said at an independent press conference. “So I feel like they’ve taken the necessary steps, but we can never rest on issues like this.”

The Park District has repeatedly refused to answer questions about Kelly’s delay in delivering the letter of complaint.

For months, authorities withheld the letter from the whistleblower who contacted Kelly and his response to her. The park district denied WBEZ’s open records request for the documents, and the the station filed a complaint against the Cook County Circuit Court agency for forcing officials to disclose the emails.

The Chicago Sun-Times first reported on the contents of the messages between Kelly and the whistleblower on Thursday, and WBEZ obtained copies of the emails.

The documents provide new details on what Kelly was initially told and how he handled the complaint.

Records show the whistleblower sent the 11-page complaint to Kelly shortly after midnight on February 7, 2020. The young woman wrote that she was working at Oak Street Beach in the summer of 2019, and she alleged to Kelly: ” There have been extreme abuses. other rescuers and I don’t want to see anyone go through what I’ve been through.

At 12:16 pm the same day, Kelly responded, “Thank you for sending this report. I am forwarding it to our Inspector General for an independent investigation. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I will and I take your statements very seriously. Thank you for your courage and call for change. Please feel free to keep in touch with me for the future.

Kelly signed the letter simply as “Mike”.

The following month, WBEZ reported, Lightfoot’s office also received another letter of complaint from a former lifeguard who said she was sexually assaulted by a manager when she was 17 and others Senior park district officials didn’t care.

Also in March 2020, the same woman who complained to Lightfoot’s office sent an almost identical letter to a senior park district official, Adam Bueling. He paid $ 91,800 a year as a beach and pool manager.

According to letters obtained by WBEZ, this woman told Bueling and Lightfoot’s office that she was “sexually assaulted by another employee in a higher position than me.” She said she then learned that a “huge” number of such incidents were happening in the park district after speaking to three colleagues about the attack and officials who made fun of her when she was told. tried to talk.

“They replied that they weren’t surprised because similar things had happened to them,” the woman wrote in the letters to Bueling and Lightfoot. “I was shocked. I asked them if they had reported and some said they had, but nothing was done about it. Others said there was too many hurdles to jump through to report and they weren’t taken seriously so it wasn’t worth it.

The mayor’s office refused to disclose the full copy of the letter it received from this lifeguard, which led to another lawsuit by WBEZ, alleging violations of the Freedom of Information Act of the ‘State.

At the time of the letters to Bueling and Lightfoot, Kelly had already made similar allegations from the original complainant in February 2020.

This woman described the regular use of drugs by rescuers while on duty. She wrote that a lifeguard “told me he was so stoned when he administered CPR to a man who was just out of the water”.

She also alleged that a lifeguard had pinned her against the wall of a guard room and called her misogynistic insults when he was “very stoned”.

The woman said she refused to drink alcohol as part of a hazing ritual, and she said this led to a rescuer “grabbing me and trying to force a bottle of vodka into me. the throat”.

For the rest of the summer, she wrote, several rescuers called her a litany of misogynistic slurs that “became my usual name.”

“Respect was something I never got, no matter how well I played as a goalie,” she wrote.

She also told Kelly that she was worried for the public about drug rescuers cheating on drug tests and warned that any incidents “will be over town and they could even be prosecuted.”

The woman wrote: “A client could die because a rescuer is brought up and not able to save him. I want the beach to be a safe space, not only for clients, but also for other rangers who are trying to learn and do their jobs.

She expressed deep regret for working for the Aquatic Department.

“I was so excited to be working on a beach in the summer of 2019 and I was so happy that I could get paid well, while also getting fitter,” the woman told Kelly. “But looking back, it was one of the worst decisions I could have made.”

Although the investigation began last year, nearly a dozen former female lifeguards told WBEZ that sexism and other toxic workplace behaviors have been common in Chicago swimming pools and public beaches virtually since women began working there as lifeguards more than 50 years ago.

Kelly has been the head of the park district since 2011 and he started working there eight years earlier.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative journalist in the Government and Politics team at WBEZ. Follow it @dmihalopoulos.

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