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Park District supervisor accused of ‘inappropriate relationship’ with underage lifeguard

The supervisor was suspended and then resigned. It’s the most explosive development yet in the ongoing investigation of sexual harassment and abuse among lifeguards at Chicago’s pools and beaches.

The lifeguard stand at North Avenue Beach along the Lake Michigan shore in Chicago.
The lifeguard stand at North Avenue Beach along the Lake Michigan shore in Chicago.
Getty

An adult male supervisor for the Chicago Park District abruptly resigned after being accused of an “inappropriate relationship” with an underage female employee who once worked as a seasonal lifeguard, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

The ouster of the supervisor is the most explosive development yet in the burgeoning investigation of sexual harassment and abuse among lifeguards at Chicago’s pools and beaches that has raised questions about an alleged cover-up in Supt. Mike Kelly’s administration.

On Wednesday, the Park Board called a special meeting for 10 a.m. Friday with a single agenda item: “closed session.” The sudden scheduling — for a “presentation from the board’s outside counsel” — has fueled speculation that Kelly’s days as superintendent may be numbered.

Park district spokeswoman Michele Lemons confirmed the new allegations about illicit contact between an adult instructor and the underage lifeguard only after being confronted by the Sun-Times.

The accused former supervisor worked in the district’s Recreation Division and was based at Oakdale Park, though he had been assigned temporarily to Humboldt Park over the summer, according to Service Employees International Union Local 73, which represents about 2,000 park district employees.

The allegations first came to the district’s attention on Aug. 26. The matter was forwarded to the park district’s inspector general “for review and investigation” — something Kelly had failed to do when the first allegations of sexual abuse and harassment of lifeguards was brought to his attention earlier this year.

But Lemons said at that point, “the matter did not rise to the level of OIG involvement” based on “details provided by the initial third-party complainant.” A second investigation by the Department of Human Resources was hampered after the alleged victim “refuted being subjected to any misconduct.”

Then, however, on Sept. 10, the park district received a written statement from a third-party complainant “verifying claims that included screenshots of text messages.” Those text messages allegedly included “reports of inappropriate communications and choking done in a sexual manner,” Lemons said. The email did not give further explanation of the text messages.

Lemons said in an email that the instructor was placed on emergency suspension Sept. 13 “while the District took the necessary steps to initiate termination,” but he resigned on Monday before that process had concluded.

Because the alleged victim is a minor, Lemons said the park district also took the unusual step of contacting the Department of Children and Family Services. According the Lemons, DCFS said “the information provided did not warrant an investigation” by the state child welfare agency.

Earlier Wednesday, Lemons had told the Sun-Times that the park district was “pleased to learn the Chicago Police Department has made an arrest in an alleged case of misconduct of a former employee accused of having an inappropriate relationship with an underage former seasonal employee.”

But after a CPD spokesman said he couldn’t find a record of an arrest involving a parks supervisor and underage employee, Lemons apologized for her error.

“The District received erroneous information,” she wrote. “On behalf of the Chicago Park District, please accept my apology for the misinformation regarding the arrest of the accused former employee.”

The Sun-Times reported in August that in February 2020, an Oak Street Beach lifeguard sent 11 pages of explosive 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.

Kelly has been under fire for giving his top managers first crack at investigating those complaints instead of referring those allegations immediately to the inspector general.

That’s what he promised the young woman he would do in an email applauding the lifeguard for her “courage” in coming forward.

Though required by park district rules, Kelly, who worked for several years in the 2000s as a park district attorney, did not contact the inspector general until a second lifeguard’s more graphic complaint of more serious allegations was forwarded to him by Lightfoot’s office.

Kelly, who has resisted calls to resign, did not respond to requests for comment. He has acknowledged second thoughts about how he handled the first woman’s complaint but has denied he was involved in a cover-up.

Lightfoot has said she will await the outcome of both investigations before deciding whether or not to retain or oust Kelly, 50, who’s paid $230,000 a year.

Valarie Hays, a former federal prosecutor who was hired by the park district board to investigation allegations of sexual harassment among lifeguards, said she continues to focus on past complaints, including two from early 2020, while the IG’s office is focused on “any new complaints that come in.”

Hays refused to say whether Kelly has been or will be interviewed as part of an investigation she hopes to complete “as quickly as possible.”

She was pressed on whether she was investigating the allegation by Nathan Kipp, who was fired from his post as deputy inspector general. Kipp alleged a high-level cover-up that may have originated with Kelly and included Park Board President Avis LaVelle.

“My investigation, irrespective of Mr. Kipp, is focused also on management’s response to the complaints. … Anything that falls into the category of response to complaints. Cover-up is your word. But you could say that a cover-up falls within an investigation of how the complaints were responded to,” Hays said.

LaVelle did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, City Council members — including Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), the mayor’s hand-picked chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, and Ethics Committee Chairman Michele Smith (43rd) — said they were outraged by the explosive new allegations. They demanded that Lightfoot fire Kelly.

“Every member of any organization that works with minors and vulnerable populations should be carefully and expertly trained to spot grooming and all other predatory behaviors,” they wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

The Park District’s claims of a “‘zero-tolerance’ policy for harassment and abuse” are “patently false, given the increasing number of complaints becoming public at long last,” the email said.

“We reiterate the call for Mike Kelly’s resignation and that of all Park Officials who have failed these victims.”

Kipp, the now-former deputy inspector general who was leading the lifeguard investigation, has called his ouster a “concerted effort” to prevent him from “continuing to investigate criminal activity and employee misconduct that seemingly pervade” the Beaches & Pools Unit.

The investigation was further complicated last month when park district IG Elaine Little, ex-wife of State Rep. Curtis Tarver (D-Chicago) was forced out after a controversy came to light regarding an affair she had with a co-worker at a previous job.

Little resigned hours after a WBEZ investigation showed that while overseeing investigations at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, she had an extramarital affair and a child out of wedlock with a colleague. That triggered a conflict of interest probe that was cut short when she resigned in 2018.

Little’s ouster as the internal parks watchdog came less than a month after she abruptly fired Kipp.

State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has opened her own investigation into the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse at the Park District. She has urged victims to call a hotline at her office — 312-603-1944 — just as she did, successfully, in building her case against now-convicted R&B singer R. Kelly.