Evanston botched response to ‘pervasive’ lakefront sexual misconduct, report finds

A law firm’s investigators, hired by the suburb, found that officials badly mishandled young, female lifeguards’ complaints of abuse and harassment by supervisors.

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Lawyers from the firm Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter found that young, female lifeguards and other beach works in Evanston faced “pervasive” sexual misconduct at the hands of managers and that city officials badly mishandled their complaints.

Lawyers from the firm Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter found that young, female lifeguards and other beach works in Evanston faced “pervasive” sexual misconduct at the hands of managers and that city officials badly mishandled their complaints.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Young, female lifeguards and other beach workers in Evanston faced “pervasive” sexual misconduct at the hands of their managers, and city officials badly mishandled their complaints, according to a report by a law firm released Friday.

The Evanston City Council hired the lawyers to conduct an independent investigation last July after WBEZ reported on accusations of sexual harassment and violence from 56 young women and girls who worked at the north suburb’s popular beaches.

The female beach workers filed a petition in 2020 detailing their accusations and demanding an apology.

But city staff members kept the matter hidden from Evanston’s elected leaders and the public for a year, and officials neglected to deal with the petition immediately, as they should have, the report found.

The lawyers from the firm Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter also said they found the city had failed to provide sexual harassment training to lakefront employees and that employee misconduct complaints were “often handled inappropriately.”

They said the workplace culture at Evanston’s beaches featured routine “on-duty predatory abuses of power” against younger, female lifeguards by male supervisors.

One male supervisor had sexual relationships with multiple female lifeguards he managed, including “non-consensual sex,” according to the 75-page report.

“When the processes failed at the lakefront, dozens of young women stepped forward to raise the alarm,” the investigators said. “It was the City’s obligation to take it from there —to elevate the serious allegations to City leadership, to see that the claims of misconduct were properly investigated, and to make changes to correct the wrongs they found. That is not what happened here.”

The lawyers delivered their report to elected officials in Evanston in recent days after WBEZ interviewed a young woman who accused an older, male manager of having sexually assaulted her when she was too intoxicated to give consent.

In text messages obtained by WBEZ, that young woman told the manager in 2020 that he and other superiors at the Evanston lakefront were “taking advantage of kids” who worked under their guidance and that their behavior had “f------‘ people up for a long time.”

The manager told her he was “sorry for everything” and acknowledged she was “too young for me.” But he said he had not been aware she felt he violated her at an off-duty party, according to the text exchange.

The woman was one of dozens who, in the July 2020 petition, had detailed their stories of harassment and abuse while working for Evanston.

In their report, the investigators said, “The City neither considered nor undertook an investigation into the petition’s allegations,” though they should have immediately.

The lawyers also wrote: “City officials who were aware of the petition’s allegations offered justifications for the lack of investigation, including the petition organizers’ request that they not, the lack of specific allegations with names and dates, a false assertion that the allegations were largely about actions that took place ‘off campus,’ and the perception that the misconduct was part of ‘beach culture’ not limited to Evanston. We find none of these justifications persuasive.”

The investigators said blame for the “incorrect decision” to not immediately investigate the accusations in the petition fell largely on Jennifer Lin, then the city’s top human resources official.

The independent counsel also said Lin and other officials suggested “the culture of parties, drinking, and drugs was not necessarily unique to Evanston” and was common among beach staff in other places.

“In her interview with investigators, and in some of her contemporaneous emails, Lin noted that some of the young women complaining about the behavior they experienced had themselves ‘behaved badly,’” the report said. “The implication was that though they were now complaining about it, the petition signatories may have themselves been willing participants in the culture they were now complaining about.”

The investigators said, “From the beginning, Lin appeared skeptical of the petition.”

When another city official told Lin about the petition, she replied that she did not “want this to be some sort of concern that is based on stuff from last year, which hasn’t surfaced this year.”

In another message, she wrote to the other official that “these millennials hold onto things.”

Lin, who no longer works for the city, would not comment Friday.

Records show she was put on administrative leave shortly after WBEZ broke the story of the petition last summer, with then-City Manager Erika Storlie, blaming Lin for not telling her about it.

Lin and Storlie both left the city payroll last year, receiving severance packages.

Another official who is criticized in the new report — top Evanston parks official Lawrence Hemingway — resigned Monday.

The lawyers said WBEZ’s story last year sparked “an onslaught of personnel actions” at Evanston’s city hall.

The petition organizers told investigators they considered taking their complaints to reporters in 2020 “but decided against it to give the City an opportunity to correct the conditions.”

But last summer “began with what the petition organizers saw as continued unacceptable practices,” the investigators said.

An Evanston resident put Mayor Daniel Biss — who was elected last year — in contact with one of the petition organizers in June 2021. The resident told Biss, “Evanston had a lifeguard problem similar to that experienced by Chicago that was currently in the news.”

The organizer gave a copy of the petition to Biss, who contacted city staff about it. Lin told him “that they had handled the situation the previous year and made changes based on the petition organizers’ requests,” the lawyers wrote.

After WBEZ asked Biss to comment on the petition, the mayor contacted Storlie and city spokesman Patrick Deignan to set up a closed-door city council meeting on the matter.

According to the new report, “Storlie strongly disagreed that a special executive session should be called, telling investigators that she thought doing so would only draw more attention to the matter, and that could wait a few days for the next regularly scheduled council meeting. Biss disagreed, and insisted an executive session be called for the soonest possible date.”

It was held last July 17, a day after WBEZ’s report.

Though Storlie did not become aware of the full extent of the complaints from beach workers until last year, she and then-Mayor Steve Hagerty got an email from a former beach employee in August 2020 citing the petition and asking them to take action.

Investigators described that as “a clear missed opportunity,” writing: “Storlie could have followed up with Lin to ask what petition the employee was talking about, for example. Had Storlie done so, she might have seen the petition much sooner than July of 2021. But we find no basis to conclude that Storlie had complete information about the petition and failed to act in 2020.”

Storlie did not reply to messages Friday.

Biss said the new report provides Evanston with a blueprint for dealing with issues “in a thorough and comprehensive and appropriate way, and root out problems instead of trying to sweep them under the rug.”

He said the report “absolutely” vindicated the girls and young women who came forward with the allegations.

“We now have an exhaustive report that corroborates what they said and really demonstrates that we’ve got a lot of work to do at the city to, first of all, treat people who come forward with allegations in an appropriate and respectful way that honors the risk that they took to come forward,” Biss said.

At the July 17 meeting, council members decided to hire the law firm to investigate.

Through the end of last year, the legal bills from Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter have totaled more than $100,000, records show.

The investigators say the interviews laid bare that “the lakefront had a culture susceptible to abuses of power.”

According to the report, “The lakefront operated with limited oversight — both because the City took a largely hands-off approach to the beaches and because it was managed for years by a single full-time City employee who was overburdened, with little time to maintain close supervision over the lifeguards and other seasonal staff.”

Compounding the problem, the lawyers said, was the way “the lakefront staff was organized into strict hierarchy.” At Evanston’s beaches, young, mostly male managers were “vested with broad discretion over their subordinates, and lower-level staff were instructed to obey the chain of command,” according to the report.

As a result, “Sexual misconduct was pervasive at the lakefront,” the lawyers wrote.

Abuses ranged from “widespread sexual commentary about female lifeguards’ bodies” by male beach staff members to a power dynamic that allowed supervisors to prey on teenage girls and college-age women.

“Beach managers asked that younger lifeguards to whom they were sexually attracted be assigned to work at their beaches,” the investigators wrote. “Male supervisors used their positions to isolate female lifeguards from their coworkers, including by approaching them in lifeguard chairs when the women could not leave due to safety rules. Male supervisors also favored women they found attractive and wanted to ‘hook up’ with (or were hooking up with) by giving them better schedules and other benefits, which resulted in differential treatment to other woman who they were not pursuing.”

Commonly, the lawyers said, there were “supervisor-subordinate relationships.” Almost always, they involved a male boss and a female underling.

“The women in these relationships often felt pressure to enter the relationship and pressure to continue it,” according to the report. “They were worried about the professional ramifications of ending the relationships.”

The report makes nine recommendations, including increasing supervision at the lakefront and moving to “ensure that investigations are handled by trained investigators with adequate capacity.”

Women who signed the petition in 2020 welcomed the lawyers’ findings.

“I think vindicated is the right word for it,” said Anna Fredrick, one of the four organizers of the petition drive. “It’s just nice to have it confirmed by these lawyers, I guess.”

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Dan Mihalopoulos reports for WBEZ.

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