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Chicago Park District’s deputy inspector general says he was suspended illegally to ‘whitewash’ lifeguard abuse investigation

Until he was escorted out of Chicago Park District headquarters last week, Nathan Kipp led the internal investigation of lifeguards at pools and lakefront beaches that has implicated Park District Supt. Mike Kelly in an alleged cover-up.

The lifeguard stand at North Avenue Beach along the Lake Michigan shore in Chicago on June 22, 2020.
The lifeguard stand at North Avenue Beach along the Lake Michigan shore in Chicago.
Getty

The Chicago Park District’s deputy inspector general said Thursday he was placed on “indefinite, unpaid emergency” suspension last week in what he called an illegal attempt to “whitewash” an investigation into rampant sexual assault, sexual harassment and physical abuse among the district’s lifeguards.

Until he was walked out of Park District headquarters last week, Nathan Kipp led the internal investigation of lifeguards at Chicago’s pools and lakefront beaches that has implicated Park District Supt. Mike Kelly in an alleged cover-up.

One of two investigators assigned to the probe, Kipp had spent a year as acting inspector general. He was a candidate for the job that went to Elaine Little, ex-wife of state Rep. Curtis Tarver (D-Chicago).

Kipp said he was given no reason for his suspension. He called it “shocking” and “illegal,” since it was not ordered by Little, and, he added, only the inspector general has the “authority to recommend discipline” for her staff.

Nevertheless, Kipp said he has no doubt about the motivation behind his suspension.

“This meritless action is a clear attempt by Park District officials to impede and obstruct a devastating investigation into widespread sexual assault, sexual harassment and physical abuse throughout the District’s Beaches & Pools Unit,” Kipp was quoted as saying in a four-page statement.

The investigation by the park district’s inspector general “is not independent, as Mr. Kelly falsely assures. Instead, the Park District and its Board of Commissioners have repeatedly and unsuccessfully exerted improper influence over the OIG [office of the inspector general] with the apparent goal of ending the investigation prematurely and as quietly as possible.”

Kelly has been under fire for giving his top managers first crack at investigating a female lifeguard’s complaints about physical abuse, sexual harassment, and drug and alcohol use by lifeguards at Oak Street Beach, 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 Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office.

Earlier this week, Kelly ordered the suspensions of two high-level officials — the assistant director of beaches and pools and the manager of beaches and pools. He told reporters he hopes to receive the inspector general’s final report next month.

Kipp branded the “September deadline” highly inappropriate and proof positive that Little’s final report will be a “whitewash.”

Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly, shown in June with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, says he gave his top managers first crack at investigating a female lifeguard’s complaints about physical abuse, sexual harassment and drug and alcohol use by lifeguards at Oak Street Beach.
Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly, shown in June with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, says he gave his top managers first crack at investigating a female lifeguard’s complaints about physical abuse, sexual harassment and drug and alcohol use by lifeguards at Oak Street Beach.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“I am perplexed why information regarding the status of the OIG’s ongoing investigation was shared with Mr. Kelly given that he, himself, should be considered a person of interest in the investigation,” Kipp wrote.

By all rights, Kelly should be at the very least a “material witness” because he received a complaint.

“Moreover, he is a potential subject of the OIG’s investigation because of, among other things, his admitted six-week delay in reporting that same complaint to the OIG, and his apparent abuse of authority when allegedly asking the complainant in April 2021 to keep him ‘in the loop’ of any future contact that she may have with OIG investigators,” Kipp wrote. “Despite these alarming facts, the OIG has not sought to interview Mr. Kelly, and I am not aware of any intention for the Office to interview Mr. Kelly.

“This is not how responsible and independent Offices of Inspectors General conduct investigations.”

With Little’s “acquiescence,” Kipp said the Park District has inserted itself into the investigation as word spread about how the OIG was looking into multiple incidents of “severe criminal misconduct.”

A new “internal monitor” installed by Kelly to oversee the beaches and pools unit is an attorney for the Park District’s Law Department to whom Little has “provided real-time information regarding confidential aspects” of the investigation. Those details have been shared with the unit under the microscope, preempting the inspector general’s “ability to pursue certain aspects of” the investigation, Kipp wrote.

“Put bluntly, by allowing the Park District to meddle in the investigation, the OIG has caused its investigation irreparable harm,” Kipp said.

While serving as interim inspector general, Kipp said he told Kelly and Park District Board President Avis LaVelle a year ago the inspector general’s office had “severe staffing shortcomings.” His concerns were “wholly ignored.”

“When viewed in the larger context of the Park District’s repeated influence over the OIG’s investigation, I am left to conclude that the District and its Board have intentionally refused to provide the OIG with necessary resources to prevent it from uncovering the full extent of the criminal misconduct within the Beaches & Pools Unit,” he wrote.

“I have watched the OIG gradually abandon its role as the Park District’s independent oversight agency. Instead, the OIG has been methodically neutered to resemble an internal compliance department that exists to satisfy the Park District’s and its Board’s demands.”

Kipp called on State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to step in and take over the entire investigation, saying, “The dozens of survivors of sex crimes that have been brave enough to come forward deserve their justice.”

The state’s attorney’s office released a statement confirming Foxx had “received information from the city’s departing Inspector General Joe Ferguson about the alleged lifeguard abuse.

“As this matter is the subject of an ongoing investigation, we are unable to further comment at this time,” the statement said.

In a statement, the Park District insisted the inspector general’s office “operates independently” and that Kelly “fully understands and respects the autonomy” of that office, since he “created” the office in 2012 “for the purpose of conducting independent investigations.”

“He has cooperated with the office since he initiated the lifeguard investigation, including following any recommendations made by the IG and responding to the need for additional resources to investigate all complaints related to misconduct and abuse with the Chicago Park District’s Beaches and Pools Unit,” the statement said.

Little issued her own statement maintaining she “independently makes all internal personnel decisions regarding disciplinary action, including emergency suspensions and terminations.”

The inspector general said she never engaged in or supported a cover-up; colluded or corroborated with the the Park District in the handling of any investigation; or provided real-time information regarding confidential aspects of the investigation to the internal monitor.

She also insisted she “will never release a report” that is “rushed,” “whitewashed” or “woefully deficient.” Suggesting she would, she said, is “offensive.”

Turning the tables on Kipp, Little said she “finds it an egregious dereliction of duty” for someone associated with the inspector general’s office to “continue to share confidential and sensitive information regarding this investigation with the media and elsewhere.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this month that in February 2020, an Oak Street Beach lifeguard sent 11 pages of explosive allegations to Kelly, detailing a frat-house environment at the beach 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 was appointed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel to his $230,000-a-year post and retained by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

He has acknowledged second thoughts about how he handled the first woman’s complaint.

“In hindsight, should I just have turned it over to the inspector general that day? Maybe I should have. ... But I gave it to my managers. The second letter came in, and I realized one is terrible. Two is too many,” Kelly has said.

Kelly has said he forwarded the first complaint he received in February 2020 to his chief programs officer, Alonzo Williams, who had Eric Fischer, the district’s assistant director of recreation, look into it.

Fischer’s daughter is also mentioned as a lifeguard who allegedly participated in hazing and bullying on Oak Street Beach, sources said.

“This is all part of the investigation, and it’s all going to come out,” Kelly said when asked about a possible conflict of interest Monday. “I don’t want to get any further into talking about my employees’ names.”

Kelly and LaVelle could not be reached for comment about Kipp’s allegations.

Thursday afternoon, the mayor’s office issued a statement.

“The Mayor believes that there is nothing more important than upholding the independence of Inspector General investigations. This is particularly true regarding the ongoing Park District IG investigation of disturbing allegations of sexual misconduct,” the statement reads.

“The IG needs the space to follow the facts where they lead and to complete her investigation in a thorough and expeditious manner. We await the IG’s final report and recommendations so that any wrongdoers can be held accountable, the survivors can receive a measure of justice and the Park District can take any additional corrective measures to protect our children.”