Pressure mounted Wednesday on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to dump Chicago Park District Board President Avis LaVelle for her “tone deaf” response to the sexual harassment and abuse of lifeguards at the city’s pools and beaches.
Two of Lightfoot’s closest City Council allies — Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Ethics Chair Michele Smith (43rd ) — said they don’t buy LaVelle’s claim she relied on then-Supt. Mike Kelly to be truthful about steps he was taking to respond to complaints from two young women who were victims of the abuse.
“The inspector general reports directly to her — and only to her. And therefore, she had to have known certain things that were going on during and in the run-up to the investigation,” Smith told the Sun-Times Wednesday.
“The first responsibility as a matter of good governance and lots of experience is to report your findings and do something. And nothing was done. Nothing was shared. That’s her responsibility.”
As for LaVelle’s claim that she had no choice but to trust the reassurances she got from Kelly that he was cleaning up the scandal, Smith said: “She knew that these allegations were there and she took no action. That’s what she did. That alone is enough for her to resign. … She has an ultimate personal responsibility.”
Smith said the jury is still out on whether or not LaVelle also played a behind-the-scenes role in the decision to suspend, then fire Deputy Inspector General Nathan Kipp, who was leading the lifeguard abuse investigation.
Special counsel Valarie Hays found “no evidence” to substantiate Kipp’s claim he was fired to “whitewash” the lifeguard investigation he was leading.
“One gap in the report is that they did not have the charge to look into communications between or among Ms. LaVelle and Ms. Little,” Smith said. “That’s a failing of that report that deserves further investigation because we don’t know … who knew what when. ... That will shed light on the termination of Mr. Kipp.”
Waguespack said LaVelle “had a lot more information than she was letting on” during Tuesday’s news conference to release the special counsel’s report and announce the firing of three top executives.
“She was getting reports directly from the OIG. She was managing the IG Elaine Little. She was very well-versed on what was happening,” Waguespack said.
“Yes, you could argue that Mike Kelly didn’t tell her everything. But she had more than enough knowledge to know that the board … should have taken immediate action.”
Kelly was found to have sat on complaints from a teenage lifeguard about physical abuse and sexual harassment on the job. Three of Kelly’s aides were fired Tuesday for breaking Park District rules on reporting sexual misconduct and workplace violence.
Waguespack said when he and Smith met with LaValle shortly before Kelly was ousted, LaVelle characterized the complaints of sexual harassment and abuse as the product of “disenchanted staff and sour grapes,” Waguespack said.
“It was trying to make it sound like it wasn’t as big a deal as the media was making it out to be,” Waguespack said.
“Disrespect for the victims. I was very angry. I realized at that point that this was far more serious than they were letting on.”
In an email to the Sun-Times, LaVelle did not respond to the mounting pressure for her resignation.
Instead, she wrote that “sour grapes” and “disenchanted former staff” was not a reference to the young women’s allegations, “nor were those assertions made by me.”
“In the meeting between the aldermen, Superintendent Kelly and me, I personally assured the aldermen that the womens’ allegations were taken very seriously and being investigated,” LaVelle wrote.
“I urged the alderman to let the facts as uncovered in the investigation dictate the discipline. I have concurred with every disciplinary recommendation to Park District HR brought forward by the IG’s office as soon as allegations against employees were substantiated.”
When former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was caught stealing from the school district and shaking down a CPS contractor, the entire Board of Education resigned for failing to watch closely enough.
But Waguespack said there are more recent examples with closer parallels to the lifeguard scandal of boards that paid the price for lax oversight.
“The two [scandals] that … they should have learned from because we were all watching it was, first of all the women gymnastics [scandal with Larry] Nassar. And the second one was the National Women’s Soccer League, where two board members resigned immediately because they waited eight days to respond to an email about women who were being abused,” Waguespack said, noting that Kelly waited six months.
“This is on the level with those two recent scandals and even the Blackhawks [scandal]. And there is no recognition here that the ultimate level of accountability for her is resignation.”
LaVelle was appointed to the park board by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and has served as board president since March 2019.
Before that, she served as former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first press secretary before moving on to accept a top job in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration.
Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, said her group has taken no “specific vote” on whether to demand LaVelle’s resignation.
She would only say that Friends of the Parks “doesn’t buy her excuses” for doing nothing.
“There’s been a long history of problems with the level of oversight that this board has had during Mike Kelly’s administration. He has often been dishonest and not transparent. And we have watched this board allow him to go unchecked for a long time, including under Avis LaVelle’s leadership,” Irizarry said.
Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick