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Chicago Park District deputy inspector general says he’s been fired

Nathan Kipp already had been suspended, a move that he called an attempt to “whitewash” an investigation into sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual abuse among the district’s lifeguards. 

A life guard tower at Oak Street Beach, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021.
A lifeguard tower at Oak Street Beach earlier this month.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Chicago Park District’s deputy inspector general said he’s been fired in what he calls a “concerted effort” to prevent him from “continuing to investigate criminal activity and employee misconduct that seemingly pervade” the park district’s Beaches & Pools Unit.

Nathan Kipp’s firing comes a week after being placed on “indefinite emergency unpaid suspension” in what he called an illegal attempt to “whitewash” an investigation into sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual abuse among the district’s lifeguards.

The firing came without warning — and without the hearing required by park district human resources policies. He also was not interviewed by his boss, Park District Inspector General Elaine Little, ignoring what Kipp calls best practice for any inspector general investigation, especially one culminating in employee termination.

Little’s termination letter to Kipp was dated Aug. 19, which he says is “not a coincidence.” That’s the same date he went public, taking the unusual step of blasting out his concerns about the motive behind his “emergency suspension” and the chilling effect it would have on the ongoing investigation into “dozens of complaints of sexual assault, sexual harassment and physical abuse” of lifeguards.

In a statement released by his attorney, Kipp said “my suspension and termination reflect a concerted effort by the Park District to prevent me from continuing to investigate the criminal activity and other employee misconduct that seemingly pervade the Beaches & Pools Unit, including officials’ apparent efforts to cover up or minimize the hostile workplace culture.”

Until he was escorted out of Park District headquarters last week, Kipp had 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 Little, ex-wife of state Rep. Curtis Tarver (D-Chicago).

On Thursday, Kipp renewed his call for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to “intervene and assume all control” over the inspector general’s investigation.

He claims the victims are owed that much. But the park district, district board and Little “have no clear interest in uncovering and publicly disclosing the full extent” of the “numerous systemic deficiencies” or the “severity of any alleged sexual and physical abuse among lifeguards,” Kipp claims.

“The dozens of professed survivors of sex crimes who have bravely come forward to the OIG deserve a fair, thorough, and unbiased investigation,” Kipp said in his statement. “All future Park District Lifeguards deserve to work in an environment without any fear of being sexually assaulted, physically abused, or harassed by their coworkers. And the general public and residents of Chicago deserve to feel that they can trust public officials.”

Kelly was appointed by Emanuel to his $230,000-a-year post and retained by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Kipp is a former deputy inspector general at the Chicago Public Schools. During his tenure at CPS, he was part of the conflict of interest investigation that led to the ouster of then-CEO Forrest Claypool.

Claypool, who also had been chief of staff and CTA president under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was forced out for allegedly violating the schools’ ethics policies and lying to the inspector general in an effort to cover up his misdeeds.

Since joining the office of the park district’s internal watchdog, Kipp said he received “only positive performance feedback” — until, that is, he was abruptly suspended. Since then, Little and other park district personnel “repeatedly dodged attempts to discuss” Kipp’s employment status.

“As such, any statement ‘confirm[ing]’ the termination of my employment is disingenuous and misleading; there simply have been no discussions ‘to confirm,’ he said. “When viewed in this light, I am left to conclude that my firing is the logical end to the Park District’s retaliatory actions.”

On Thursday, Kipp named Foxx as “among the dwindling number of officials who can ensure that any criminal activity in the Park District’s Lifeguard corps will not be minimized or swept under the rug, and that the public will instead learn how Park District officials have failed the District’s employees, patrons, and the public at large.”

The state’s attorney’s office declined to comment.

Last week, after Kipp’s suspension, 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,” Foxx’ statement said.

A lifeguard stands watch at Oak Street Beach on Aug. 4, 2021.
A lifeguard stands watch at Oak Street Beach in August.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Little had no immediate comment. Asked about Kipp’s claims, park district spokeswoman Michele Lemons said in an email that the park district’s inspector general “operates independently” of the Chicago Park District, which “does not have any influence over the policies, decision or personnel matters made by the Parks OIG.” ”

Following Kipp’s emergency suspension, 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; never colluded or corroborated with the park district in handling any investigation; and never provided real-time information regarding confidential aspects of the investigation to the internal monitor.

She also insisted she will never release a report that’s “rushed,” “whitewashed” or “woefully deficient” and it’s “offensive” to suggest otherwise.

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 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.

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

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.

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

Two top managers since have been suspended without pay, part of at least 42 employees disciplined since an investigation began in March 2020.

Earlier this week, Lightfoot said she would await a final report from the Park District’s inspector general before deciding whether to fire Kelly for his handling of the burgeoning scandal.

“We have to allow the IG to finish her work and not litigate this in the press where you have pieces of information. He’s got pieces of information,” the mayor said. “The IG is the one that’s gonna be able to see the whole picture. We have to respect her process.”