Chicago Parks Watchdog Reveals Rescuers’ Abuse Findings

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The Chicago Park District’s internal watchdog said Wednesday that investigators reviewed 48 allegations of misconduct at city beaches and pools and found ample evidence to support complaints that supervisors got away with it. harassing, abusing and sexually assaulting young rescuers, including underage girls. .

A new report from Acting Inspector General Alison Perona has provided the most detailed account yet of a scandal that prompted the resignation last year of the longtime chief executive and chairman of the board. park district.

“These allegations have brought to light not only misconduct, but also failures in the reporting and administrative functions of the Park District,” Perona wrote. “In several places, long-tolerated hazing behavior fostered an environment where bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct flourished and went unchallenged.”

At the park district board meeting on Wednesday, Perona said the allegations were found to be substantiated in 29 of 49 cases investigated by his park district aquatics department office.

The Inspector General’s report also describes for the first time the alleged sexual assault of a “drunk customer” by a male park district supervisor.

The Park District Watchdog’s office began investigating allegations of widespread misconduct nearly two years ago. The investigation began after two young female former lifeguards sent detailed and disturbing letters to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Park District CEO Michael Kelly.

But the investigation remained out of public view for more than a year, until WBEZ reported on the “extensive investigation” last April. Prior to this, senior park officials had taken no concrete action to address the problem, according to a report published in November by a former federal prosecutor hired by the park district board.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx opened his own investigation in August, amid accusations that Kelly and the then-Park District Inspector General mishandled the case.

Kelly resigned in October under pressure from Lightfoot and the aldermen. And on Wednesday, the mayor’s interim pick to succeed Kelly asked members of the parks board to create a new “Office of Prevention and Accountability.” Officials said this new Park District branch would investigate allegations of sexual misconduct instead of the inspector general’s office.

“We are facing a critical moment in the Chicago Park District, and we must seize this opportunity to do everything in our power to create a safer and more respectful work environment for all of our employees and customers,” said Rosa Escareño, Acting General of the Park District. superintendent and CEO, said in a statement.

Escareño said the inspector general’s investigation led to 15 employees being fired, resigning while they were under investigation, or being asked to resign.

The inspector general said his office is continuing its investigation. But the new annual report released on Wednesday provided powerful, graphic descriptions of some of the probe’s most egregious “sustained findings” so far.

This included the first case in the scandal in which a park patron, rather than an employee, was the alleged victim of sexual violence.

“A male supervisor intimidated and harassed several female lifeguards and likely assaulted a drunken client,” Perona’s report said. “In 2021, this male supervisor bragged to other lifeguards that he took a drunk female boss into the lifeguard trailer and sexually assaulted her. The circumstances surrounding the attack were confirmed by several witnesses.

Investigators were “unable to confirm the identity of the boss” who was allegedly assaulted.

The supervisor denied the allegation, but was suspended and resigned while under investigation. Officials put the man on the Park District’s “Do Not Rehire” list, Perona said.

The report also says investigators found evidence that park district supervisors failed to report misconduct that had come to their attention.

In one such case, a supervisor “failed to report information regarding two alleged sexual assaults.”

“The supervisor admitted that she had been informed of the assaults but did not report them because she was unclear about the reporting requirements,” Perona wrote, adding that discipline against the supervisor included “ a period of suspension and mandatory counseling and training”.

Another lifeguard supervisor also faced only a written reprimand and ‘a retraining program’ after allegedly failing to stop or report ‘bullying and harassment activities by subordinates’ .

Perona said there were 19 cases last year “in which investigation teams were unable to substantiate allegations of misconduct, bullying or harassment”. In five of those cases, the alleged victims said they had not been victims of misconduct, while nine other employees refused to cooperate.

Perona became acting inspector general in September, when Elaine Little resigned as the park district’s primary watchdog. Hours after WBEZ announced she was facing a ‘thorough’ investigation into ‘conflicts and alleged wrongdoing’ when she quit as director of investigations at Cook County Juvenile Jail in 2018 .

Until then, the mayor had fiercely defended Little and the investigation, despite calls for dedicate additional resources to the question and to the allegations that the park district chiefs were interfering with the sensitive probe.

The criminal investigation conducted by the state attorney’s office gave sex crimes charges against lifeguard at Humboldt Park. Mauricio Ramirez, 32, was arrested and charged after he allegedly had sex with two employees who were 16 at the time of the alleged assaults.

A spokeswoman for Foxx said Wednesday that the investigation at the park district aquatics department is ongoing.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s government and politics team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.

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