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Park District fires three more top officials as lifeguard scandal fallout continues

Alonzo Williams, chief program officer, Adam Bueling, manager of beaches and pools, and Eric Fischer, assistant director of recreation, join their former boss, ousted Supt. Mike Kelly, on the unemployment line.

The lifeguard stand at North Avenue Beach remains empty on June 22, 2020, during the shutdown ordered by Mayor Lori Lightfoot during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Chicago Park District on Tuesday released a special counsel report on the “management response” to the burgeoning lifeguard scandal. It also fired three top officials.
Getty

The Chicago Park District on Tuesday fired three top executives — and apologized to female lifeguards for dropping the ball on their complaints of sexual harassment and abuse — after a blistering report that exposed a frat-house culture tolerated for decades.

Fired were: Alonzo Williams, chief program officer; Adam Bueling, manager of beaches and pools; and Eric Fischer, assistant director of recreation. All join their former boss, ousted Supt. Mike Kelly, on the unemployment line.

Tuesday’s firings follow a 43-page report from special counsel Valarie Hays painting a far more damning picture of high-level negligence that has undermined the trust needed to convince parents to send their children to Park District programs and their teenagers to work at beaches, pools and camps.

The disciplinary actions — that, officials admitted, took longer than the brave young women deserved — were announced at a late afternoon news conference featuring multiple apologies.

“Park District management failed our workers. ... I was absolutely stunned and mortified by what I read. My heart aches for the brave young women who were put through these horrible acts of misconduct. They were met with silence and inaction,” said Interim Superintendent Rosa Escareno.

“When we allow a culture of disrespect and abuse to foster — when we allow male supervisors to set an example of misconduct — we are failing all of our young people. ... We have a responsibility to take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously. Those in power failed in that duty. For that, on behalf of the Chicago Park District, I am sorry.”

Chicago Park District Interim General Superintendent and CEO Rosa Escareno speaks to reporters during a press conference at Jesse White Park on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.
Chicago Park District Interim Supt. Rosa Escareno speaks at a news conference at Jesse White Park on Tuesday after the release of a report detailing failures in the park district’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment and other misconduct by lifeguards.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Avis LaVelle, who has served as president of the board overseeing the parks since March 2019, was hounded by questions of what she knew and when she knew it. She was asked why she trusted Kelly’s repeated assurances that he was taking action to clean up the burgeoning scandal when it turns out he was sitting on those complaints not for six weeks, as previously reported, but for six months.

“I operated based on what I was told was happening,” LaVelle said.

Noting that board members are not Park District employees, she said: “We don’t have visibility into the day-to-day operations. … You know what you are told. It’s a trust factor. Management tells you what management and staff are doing. They tell you what they’re planning. They tell you what they implement. … You have to be able to trust the administrator to tell you what is going on.”

Chicago Park District Board President Avis LaVelle speaks to reporters during a press conference at Jesse White Park on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, where officials provided an update on ongoing investigations at the park district.
Chicago Park District Board President Avis LaVelle speaks to reporters Tuesday during a press conference at Jesse White Park about an ongoing investigation of misconduct by Chicago Park District lifeguards. “You have to be able to trust the administrator to tell you what is going on,” LaVelle said. “I accept my responsibility as a person who was sitting in this chair at the time that this was exposed. ... It was a dysfunctional investigative process. It was a dysfunctional response process.”
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

When a television reporter then told LaVelle her response sounded like she was “passing the buck,” she finally acknowledged her share of the blame.

“It is not acceptable that any of this continued to happen. It is not acceptable that this started long before any of us that I’m aware of were here. It’s all unacceptable. I accept my responsibility as a person who was sitting in this chair at the time that this was exposed. I can’t be responsible for the people who came before me. I can be responsible for my part of it. And I have accepted that mistakes were made. It was a dysfunctional investigative process. It was a dysfunctional response process,” she said.

“There are many factors. Some of this rests with the management of the Park District that did not tell us the truth.”

The Sun-Times reported in August that, in February 2020, an Oak Street Beach lifeguard sent 11 pages of allegations to Kelly about lifeguards’ conduct during the summer of 2019.

She said she’d been pushed into a wall, called sexually degrading and profane names by fellow lifeguards and abandoned for hours at her post for refusing to take part in their drinking parties and on-the-job drug use.

But the Hays report paints a far more damning picture of Kelly’s handling of the young woman’s complaint and outlines a number of times Kelly wasn’t truthful, such as when he said 42 employees had been disciplined when only seven of those were related to the sexual misconduct investigation.

Michael Kelly, then the Chicago Park District’s superintendent, at an August news conference at which he defended his handling of the lifeguard scandal. In October, facing firing, he resigned.
Former Chicago Park District General Superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly, pictured at an August press conference in which he defended his handling of sexual misconduct against lifeguards, knew of complaints of abuse against a teenage lifeguard for at least six months before he took any action — and even that action was only spurred by a second woman making a more serious report to Mayor Lori Lightfoot. That’s according to a report released Tuesday by outside counsel.
Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

It says the now-former superintendent first was notified of the woman’s allegation by her parents in an email sent to him on Aug. 30, 2019. Kelly forwarded the email to Williams and said, “Take a look and let’s discuss.”

The law firm of Arnold & Porter​​ found no evidence either Williams or Kelly did anything to follow up on the parental complaint. Nor did they report the allegations to the inspector general or the Department of Human Resources, as park district rules require.

The young woman followed up on Feb. 7, 2020, sending to Kelly and separately to Fischer details of heartbreaking abuse she had suffered at work.

Still, Kelly did not report the allegations to the inspector general or to Human Resources, instead giving Williams and Fischer yet another crack at investigating the young woman’s complaints.

As for Fischer: “Mr. Fischer’s position is that he did not see this email in his inbox even though he admitted ... that he was very good about checking his email.”

Kelly waited until a second woman’s far more graphic complaint was forwarded to him in March by the mayor’s office before notifying the inspector general. Bueling received that complaint on March 9, 2020, but was found never to have forwarded it to human resources as required.

Chicago Park District interim Inspector General Alison Perona speaks to reporters during a press conference providing an update to the ongoing investigations at the park district. The news conference was at Jesse White Park on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.
Alison Perona, interim inspector general for the Chicago Park District, speaks to reporters Tuesday at a press conference at Jesse White Park.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The first time Bueling disclosed receiving the complaint was nearly five months later, when the inspector general asked him to produce all emails from the young woman.

Before rising through the ranks to his $102,500-a-year post as aquatics boss, Fischer, 51, had been an Oak Street Beach lifeguard in the 1980s and 1990s, public records show. His father, wife and several of his children also have worked as guards, often at Oak Street. One of his daughters was named as a perpetrator of hazing, accused by the first victim of handing out jello shots at an initiation party for lifeguards, some of whom were underage.

Bueling, 39, has been manager of beaches and pools since 2019, is paid $91,800 a year and reports to Fischer. He joined the park district in 2005 as a lifeguard, records show.

Williams earned $195,000 as chief program officer. His rise came not through aquatics but on the park programs side since getting hired in 2001, his LinkedIn profile shows.

Although park district rules require the inspector general to justify any investigation lasting longer than six months, the report points to several factors contributing to that delay. They included Kelly asking the IG’s office to take on sexual misconduct and workplace violence investigations previously handled by human resources. Plus, there was “high turnover” of leadership in the office, including four IGs in two years.

Deputy Inspector General Nathan Kipp has accused the Park District of suspending him, then firing him a week later in an effort to “whitewash” the lifeguard abuse investigation he was leading.

Attorney Valarie Hays speaks to reporters at a news conference on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021 at Jesse White Park.
Attorney Valarie Hays speaks to reporters at a news conference on Tuesday at Jesse White Park. Her law firm conducted an investigation into the Chicago Park District’s handling of sexual harassment and other other misconduct by lifeguards.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

But the Hays report found “no evidence” Kipp was terminated “in an effort to impede the inspector general’s investigation of the Lifeguards Complaints.”

In addition to the Hays report, the park district also released findings from the inspector general with help from Franczek, P. C., a law firm known for negotiating labor contracts for the city and park district. Those findings summarized four instances of lifeguards engaging in separate instances of sexual misconduct, starting in 2015. Escareno moved to fire all four; two already had resigned while on emergency suspension.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot expressed outrage at the findings, “particularly those that show that the people entrusted to lead the Park District were aware of these heinous allegations of bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment, and assault and chose to do very little in response. It is clear that all the way to the top of Park District senior leadership absolutely failed to take these complaints seriously.”