Chicago Park District lifeguard abuse scandal has cost taxpayers over $330,000 in legal bills

A law firm hired to investigate the park district’s response has charged more than $259,000. Another firm has billed more than $70,000.

SHARE Chicago Park District lifeguard abuse scandal has cost taxpayers over $330,000 in legal bills
Legal fees connected to the Chicago Park District’s handling of its lifeguard sexual abuse scandal have cost taxpayers nearly $300,000.

Legal fees connected to the Chicago Park District’s handling of its lifeguard sexual abuse scandal have cost taxpayers nearly $300,000.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

The Chicago Park District has run up legal bills totaling more than $330,000 from law firms hired to help deal with the sexual abuse scandal involving lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools.

The firm that investigated the park district’s response to the widespread accusations charged more than $259,000 for producing a blistering report last fall, WBEZ has learned.

Another firm has charged more than $70,000 to help the park district inspector general’s office look into dozens of complaints of harassment, abuse and assault, according to records.

In October, Mayor Lori Lightfoot forced the resignation of Michael Kelly, the longtime park district chief executive officer and general superintendent, blasting him for his handling of the scandal.

Politically connected parks board President Avis LaVelle stepped down in November.

The inspector general’s office opened its investigation almost two years ago, after two young, female former lifeguards sent whistleblower letters to Kelly and Lightfoot. But the internal probe remained out of public view for more than a year until WBEZ broke the story of a “broad investigation” of the park district’s aquatics department last April.

A few weeks later, records show, the park district signed a contract with the firm of Jim Franczek, the chief labor counsel for City Hall, the Chicago Public Schools and the park district.

The understaffed park district inspector general’s office hired Franczek P.C. on May 18 “to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and / or assault against Park District employees committed by current and former employees of the Park District,” according to the contract with the firm,.

In a report to the park district board last month, Alison Perona, the park district’s interim inspector general, said investigators found evidence to back up 29 of 49 accusations they have investigated in the ongoing probe.

“At several locations, long-tolerated hazing behavior fostered an environment where bullying, harassing and sexual misconduct flourished and went unchallenged,” Perona wrote.

In addition to the deal with Franczek’s firm, Perona said in October she hired “two part-time investigators who each have extensive experience in sexual assault investigations.”

Park district officials initially denied requests for copies of the contract with and bills from Franczek’s firm. WBEZ sued the park district in Cook County circuit court in June for violations of the state’s public records law, and officials recently turned over the records.

The total charged by Franczek so far is $73,297.44.

Perona did not return messages. Franczek declined to comment.

The contract with Franczek’s firm was signed last year by Elaine Little, who was then the park district’s inspector general. Little quit in September, hours after WBEZ reported she was facing an “extensive” investigation into “alleged conflicts and wrongdoing” when she quit her job at Cook County’s juvenile jail in 2018.

At that point, the mayor — who previously defended Little — said the park district had to hire a “true independent investigator” with a reputation “beyond reproach” to look into the matter.

Six days later, on Sept. 20, the park district board signed a $325-an-hour contract with the firm Arnold & Porter for an investigation by former federal prosecutor Valarie Hays. That firm billed the park district $259,455.04 for a report that was released in early November, according to invoices and parks officials.

The 40-page report from Hays concluded that Kelly had known about the accusations far longer than he had acknowledged and did nothing to investigate them immediately, contrary to his public statements and park district policy.

Hays’ investigation also led the park district to fire three other high-ranking officials. And the report found park district leaders did not take any “corrective action” until WBEZ first reported on the complaints.

A spokeswoman for Arnold & Porter wouldn’t comment.

Park district officials also declined to comment on the legal bills and the firms’ work.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office has been conducting its own investigation into lifeguard abuse cases involving the park district and officials’ handling of the matter since August. That investigation recently resulted in the indictment of a Humboldt Park lifeguard supervisor.

WBEZ logo

Dan Mihalopoulos reports for WBEZ.

The Latest
Antwon Harrison, 24, allegedly fired a weapon at officers from a vehicle fleeing the scene of a shooting in Englewood on Monday. The driver was also arrested.
Eight Republican-led states have pulled out of the nation’s bipartisan electronic system that checks voter registration records for accuracy. More states could choose to pull out. It’s a threat to the integrity of our elections.
Though the grandmother has a history of hogging attention at family events, the betrothed woman’s mom wants her involved with wedding activities.
The Biden administration says cannabis consumers should not be treated as criminals, but continues to defend a federal policy that punishes them by taking away their Second Amendment rights.
Denver is two wins away from its first NBA title.