Two Chicago aldermen have introduced legislation calling on City Hall’s inspector general to join forces in an ongoing, long-running investigation into alleged sexual misconduct against female lifeguards at the city’s public beaches and pools.
Citing WBEZ’s reporting on the widespread accusations at the Chicago Park Park District, 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack and Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd Ward, filed their proposal on Tuesday.
“The stories that we saw about the horrific sexual assault and harrassment of park district employees, especially the lifeguards, were pretty appalling,” said Waguespack, who is chairman of the City Council’s powerful Finance Committee.
For more than a year, the office of the park district’s inspector general – a separate agency from the City Hall’s internal watchdog – has been investigating the allegations of serious, systemic misconduct against lifeguards.
Earlier this year, the park district’s independent investigators said they found ample evidence to back up allegations against three senior lifeguards. The most serious case so far involved a lifeguard who investigators say likely “committed criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse” in 2018, when he allegedly forced a 16-year-old female lifeguard to perform a sex act on him and then tried to rape her.
But the investigators have made clear that they expect to issue more reports as they delve into similar allegations against “dozens of Chicago Park District employees in the Aquatics Department.”
The investigation has been slowed by the park district’s lack of resources for internal probes. And last week, Park District Inspector General Elaine Little asked for officials to provide her with a bigger budget to deal with what she described as an unprecedented investigation.
Little said her office needs more funding “to hire additional investigative staff, provide appropriate training and adequately update its case management system.”
Park district officials have said they are hiring an outside law firm to assist Little’s office with the case. But they have not identified the firm publicly and declined WBEZ’s requests for documents pertaining to the outside lawyers’ involvement in the matter.
Nonetheless, Waguespack said he thinks the additional help for the park district watchdogs should come from the much-larger office of the city’s inspector general, Joe Ferguson.
“Media reports have unveiled multiple allegations of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment with the ranks of the Chicago Park District’s lifeguards,” according to the legislation introduced by Waguespack and Smith. “Those reports have alleged that such conduct has been prevalent within the ranks of the Chicago Park District’s lifeguards for decades, indicating a systemic issue at the Chicago Park District.”
The lifeguards work at more than 100 beaches and pools in the summer.
The park district inspector general’s investigation began in March 2020, after two female former lifeguards filed complaints to the city’s top parks official, Michael Kelly, and to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.