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Park District hires former prosecutor to complete lifeguard misconduct probe

Officials announced the hiring of Valarie Hays a week after Park District Inspector General Elaine Little resigned.

Hundreds of seagulls roost on the sand at North Avenue Beach in August 2020. A private attorney will finish an investigation of allegations of widespread sexual harassment among the city’s lifeguards and an alleged coverup by Park District officials.
Hundreds of seagulls roost on the sand at North Avenue Beach in August 2020. A private attorney will finish an investigation of allegations of widespread sexual harassment among the city’s lifeguards and an alleged coverup by Park District officials.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A week after the Park District inspector general resigned, officials announced a former federal prosecutor takeover of a probe of allegations of sexual harassment among lifeguards at city pools and beaches.

Valarie Hays, a partner at law firm Arnold Porter, will lead the sexual harassment investigation, Park Board President Avis LaVelle announced in a statement Wednesday. Inspector General Elaine Little resigned last week, and Deputy Inspector General Nathan Kipp, one of two IG staffers who had been working on the lifeguard inquiry, was suspended and then fired after going public with his concerns that high-ranking Park District employees were attempting to “whitewash” the investigation of the sexual harassment complaint and an alleged coverup.

“We are committed to a thorough investigation of what has been done and to hold accountable those responsible for wrongdoing,” Lavelle said in a statement. “However, we also see this as an opportunity to make changes for the better. Our goal is to protect our park staff and patrons and heighten overall awareness of appropriate workplace behavior even in settings where playfulness is a primary component of what we do each day.”

LaVelle also announced the hiring of attorney Alison Perona, who from 2012 to 2015 served as the Park District’s first inspector general, to again serve as IG on an interim basis while the district searches for a permanent replacement for Little.

Hays was a federal prosecutor in Chicago and now is a partner at Arnold Porter, where she leads the law firm’s white collar criminal defense and corporate investigations practice. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx also is investigating the allegations.

An IG report released by Little detailed sexual misconduct and an alleged sexual assault by three former Park District lifeguards. That investigation was launched after Supt. Mike Kelly went to the IG’s office with a complaint that had been forwarded to him by Lightfoot’s office. Kelly had received a similar complaint six weeks earlier, in February 2020, and assigned two deputies to investigate rather than going to the IG with the allegations, as Park District policy dictated.

The 11-page email Kelly had received detailed a booze-filled “rookie initiation” for lifeguards at Oak Street Beach in the summer of 2019, and a long-running pattern of lewd comments and sexual harassment among lifeguards. The subsequent IG’s report included incidents involving six female lifeguards, including an attempted rape, dating back as far as 2016.

The report included misconduct including lifeguards drinking on duty, and a seasonal lifeguard that allegedly groped his female colleagues at pools in Portage Park and Jefferson Park in a pair of incidents two years apart. Another male lifeguard allegedly attempted to rape a female colleague in his car after giving her a ride home from work. The same male lifeguard was allegedly visibly intoxicated while on duty during the 2018 Chicago Air & Water show.