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Park District boss defends his handling of lifeguard scandal

Supt. Mike Kelly says he let his top managers investigate a female lifeguard’s complaints about physical abuse, sexual harassment and drug and alcohol use by lifeguards at Oak Street Beach — and maybe he shouldn’t have.

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

Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly 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 — and maybe he shouldn’t have.

Kelly said Friday the young woman’s Feb. 7, 2020 email — which arrived the day after a phone call from her father — “made my blood boil” because the behavior she described was abusive and “disgusting.”

Nevertheless, Kelly sent the complaint to top “managers,” instead of “forwarding it to our inspector general for an independent investigation,” as Kelly had promised in his email response to the woman.

The management investigation went nowhere, in part because it was February, and seasonal lifeguards were difficult to reach, Kelly said.

Only after a second, more graphic complaint was forwarded to Kelly by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office six weeks later was the matter referred to Park District Inspector General Elaine Little; her internal investigation continues.

“I asked my managers a reasonable question, which is, ‘Can you look into this? Do we have complaints? Are there other complaints? What’s going on, folks?’” Kelly told WBBM-AM (780) reporter Craig Dellimore.

Kelly did not identify the managers. One top manager is the father of a woman accused of having participated in hazing at Oak Street Beach.

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

Kelly was asked if he drew a distinction between the first complaint, which described physical abuse, sexual harassment and drug and alcohol use and the second woman’s letter, which alleged rampant sexual abuse and sexual violence.

“I’m not gonna slice the onion and say, ‘This was bad behavior. This was criminal behavior.’ It’s just all bad. I own it. I made that decision. And I still stand by it. I think it was the right decision,” said Kelly, whose staff reached out to Dellimore to tell his side of the story.

Kelly was appointed by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and retained by Lightfoot.

Earlier this week, the Sun-Times reported details of the young woman’s email and Kelly’s broken promise.

Lightfoot responded by dodging repeated questions about whether Kelly should keep is job. Park District rules require alleged wrongdoing to be reported immediately to the inspector general.

Kelly said Friday his first priority is “protecting children” who attend Park District camps and programs and the young men and women who work as lifeguards and that he will not rest until there is no abuse of any kind.

“Mike Kelly the general superintendent. Mike Kelly the dad. Mike Kelly the Chicagoan is passionate and he’s gonna fight for these kids,” Kelly said, his voice breaking.

“Would I have done things differently? Well, I always knew it was going to the inspector general. Someone could say, `Well, you didn’t.’ But it was always that. Because the end game of this always was to root it out.”

What about the young woman who was promised an immediate IG investigation, but didn’t get it?

“My word was, I wasn’t gonna rest until this was rooted out and every bad actor was dealt with — whether it was suspension, termination or me sitting in a courtroom in Cook County in the front row supporting them as they prosecute these people. That was my commitment then. That was my commitment now,” Kelly said.