Chicago parks chief resigns after lifeguard sex abuse scandal

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Longtime Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly resigned on Saturday, hours after Mayor Lori Lightfoot called for his dismissal over a widespread and growing sexual abuse scandal involving lifeguards at beaches and pools from the city.

Park District Board Chairman Avis LaVelle confirmed the news of Kelly’s resignation to WBEZ on Saturday night. After weeks of dodging questions about Kelly’s future, Lightfoot said in a statement on Saturday that the park district board should fire him immediately due to his response to the explosive allegations.

Lightfoot said she voiced this position when she attended part of the special closed-door park district board meeting on the future of Kelly, who held the $ 230,000 position. per year for more than a decade.

“The culture of sexual abuse, harassment and coercion that has become pervasive in the District Aquatic Department’s lifeguard program under his leadership, combined with the Superintendent’s lack of urgency or accountability as new facts come to light, is unacceptable, “Lightfoot said in a statement sent to WBEZ on Saturday.

Kelly and other park officials have repeatedly defended their handling of the case since WBEZ first reported in April that the Park District Inspector General was investigating complaints of sexual harassment, abuse , assaults and other misconduct against dozens of employees of the aquatic department.

But in his statement on Saturday, Lightfoot referred to the resignation of a 32-year-old male supervisor in Humboldt Park, who has been charged with sexual misconduct against a 16-year-old female lifeguard.

The mayor dismissed Kelly’s promises of reform.

“Despite previous allegations of new training, new procedures, and new staff, the failures of the Park District Administration’s current response to new allegations of child harm persist and simply cannot be tolerated un more day, ”said Lightfoot. “Therefore, in my opinion, it is time for new leadership immediately. “

In her resignation letter, Kelly said, “I have always had the best interests of our customers and employees at heart.” A statement from the park district said the council would work with Lightfoot to appoint an interim CEO.

Lightfoot’s strong statement came as a growing number of city council members called on Kelly to step down from her handling of the case, which has come to the attention of law enforcement officials. month.

The park district board members met privately for 3.5 hours on Friday – but took no action. LaVelle would only say that they discussed “various employment and personnel matters” after hearing from a former federal prosecutor hired last month to examine the reaction of park administrators to allegations of lifeguards as young as 16.

AT press conference in August, Kelly said he would not resign and promised a speedy resolution to the internal investigation. At the time, Kelly predicted he would quickly bring reform to beaches and public swimming pools, where former lifeguards told WBEZ they suffered from a misogynistic and abusive work culture. for decades.

But since then the pressure on Kelly has grown, with the Park District Inspector General resigned last month after enjoying the vocal accompaniment of Kelly and Lightfoot.

“Families trust the Park District with their precious children,” Lightfoot said on Saturday. “They have the right to expect their children to be safe and protected.

“In addition, Park District employees deserve leadership that shares their core values ​​of protecting our children from predators and bullies, and believing survivors of sexual abuse.”

Meanwhile, Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx has opened his own criminal investigation. This week, Foxx took the rare and dramatic stage to publicly ask victims of sexual violence in the park district to come forward, and to contact prosecutors on a new hotline in his office at 312-603-1944.

And on Friday, the progressive 18-member city council caucus added its voice to calls for Kelly’s resignation.

Among the board members who have previously said Kelly should go: Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward; Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd arrondissement; Michele Smith, 43rd arrondissement; André Vasquez, 40th arrondissement; Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th arrondissement; and Gilbert Villegas, 36th parish.

The Park District Inspector General had secretly investigated the sexual misconduct allegations for more than a year, until WBEZ revealed the existence of the probe in April. Documents obtained by WBEZ show that investigators found evidence to corroborate allegations of serious sexual misconduct against three senior lifeguards who no longer work for the park district.

But records show that two initial complaints in early 2020 quickly turned into something much bigger.

The park district is responsible for dozens of beaches and swimming pools. Some lifeguards work year round, but many others are hired seasonally and may be as young as 15 by early summer.

Kelly received the first “extreme abuse” complaint on the city’s iconic North Avenue Beach from a 17-year-old former lifeguard at the time on February 7, 2020. He immediately promised the girl he would send her. 11 very detailed pages. report a lifeguard misconduct to the Inspector General’s office for a full investigation.

But Kelly didn’t do this for 41 days. And he only forwarded the initial report to the Inspector General after a second woman sent a separate complaint to Lightfoot, which was forwarded to the park district leadership.

The first complainant, who is now 19, told WBEZ that Kelly contacted her family after news of the investigation became public earlier this year, telling them he was under great pressure and asking her to let her know if she learned more about the unfolding of the investigation .

Nathan Kipp, the former deputy park district inspector general, said there was “certainly an implicit intimidating factor” in Kelly’s conversation with the young woman. Kipp also said senior park officials intervened in the investigation and that the Inspector General’s office had hesitated to question Kelly.

Park District leaders have denied Kipp’s claims – and Kipp was fired the same day he spoke, in August.

The second whistleblower told Lightfoot’s office the park district ‘directors’ ignored and even made fun of his allegations of sexual assault at age 17 by another senior employee . She therefore feared reprisals and did not officially report the incident.

Her experience, the woman said, was typical in an aquatic department plagued by everything “from sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape.” And she alleged that it was “very difficult for a report to escalate” when a misconduct was reported, and that perpetrators often ended up suffering only “slight” consequences.

Both initial whistleblowers told WBEZ in August they were deeply disappointed with Lightfoot’s handling of the scandal and believed the mayor should fire Kelly.

At the time of posting these comments, Lightfoot responded that she understood the “anger” of the whistleblower who wrote to her office, but said she would wait for the results of the Inspector General’s investigation. before forming an opinion.

“We have to let the IG do its job without arguing this in the press,” the mayor said on August 23. “It is not appropriate.”

However, Lightfoot’s tone changed markedly when Park District Inspector General Elaine Little resigned in September – hours after WBEZ revealed that she herself had resigned from a previous government investigation while under investigation for alleged conflicts and other wrongdoing.

“I worry what these victims think today,” Lightfoot said on Sept. 14, when Little resigned. “I worry about whether or not they think they are being treated fairly, that their claims are treated with the seriousness they deserve.”

Days after Little’s resignation, park district officials hired former federal prosecutor Valarie Hays to continue the inspector general’s work. And Kelly hired a consultant to create what he introduced as a new “Protection Office” in the park district by the end of the year.

But Foxx had already opened its own investigation. On August 19, she sent a letter to Kelly and LaVelle informing them that her office had started investigating the park district’s reaction to the lifeguard abuse scandal.

Foxx wrote that prosecutors were investigating allegations of “certain criminal conduct, including, but not limited to past and present sexual assault and harassment, obstruction, witness tampering, cover-up of criminal conduct and official misconduct by Park employees District and board members ”.

And Foxx said this week it had assigned sex crimes and public corruption investigators to the Park District case.

But Lightfoot said she only learned of the criminal investigation after WBEZ obtained a copy of the letter from Foxx – almost a month after Kelly and LaVelle received it.

“Of course I should have known [the state’s attorney’s investigation] at the time Mike Kelly and Avis LaVelle were notified, ”Lightfoot said. “I made it very clear that it was a mistake.”

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

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