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In Chicago, lifeguard abuse allegations lead to shakeups and firings

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Decades-long sexual misconduct claims by female lifeguards in Chicago are in the spotlight after some women say they endured years of sexual harassment and even violence from superiors. As a result, the city's mayor forced the head of the local park district to resign. The Cook County state's attorney is now investigating how park officials responded to those complaints. Dan Mihalopoulos of member station WBEZ reports.

DAN MIHALOPOULOS, BYLINE: Chicago's extensive public parks include 23 sandy beaches along the shores of Lake Michigan and nearly 100 swimming pools across the city. Many women employed as lifeguards say the summers they worked there to protect swimmers left them exposed to a toxic workplace culture of abuse. Park district officials opened an internal investigation early last year, and it dragged on for more than a year and a half. In August, law enforcement authorities opened their own investigation. And just last week, the park district's CEO, Michael Kelly, resigned over the scandal. It all started in early 2020 with whistleblower complaints to Kelly and the mayor from two female lifeguards, one of them underage. The park district's deputy inspector general, Nathan Kipp, soon found himself sifting through serious allegations against dozens of employees.

NATHAN KIPP: It was clear that these weren't just one-off allegations, but that it was a really deep-seated, systemic issue.

MIHALOPOULOS: But then just two months ago, Kipp was taken off that job and suspended without explanation.

KIPP: I think that the investigation has really jumped the rails. I highly suspect that this is going to be a whitewash.

MIHALOPOULOS: Kipp alleged interference from park district leaders and was fired on the same day he spoke out. Back then, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot defended the probe and urged patience with the investigation.

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LORI LIGHTFOOT: Lots of people are going to have opinions about what should and what shouldn't happen. We have to allow the IG to finish her work and not litigate this in the press.

MIHALOPOULOS: But then last month, another bombshell - Inspector General Elaine Little quit just hours after WBEZ revealed she was under investigation herself for, quote, "alleged conflicts and wrongdoing" when she resigned from her previous job at the juvenile jail in Chicago. Suddenly, the mayor's tone shifted dramatically.

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LIGHTFOOT: I worry about what these victims are thinking today. I worry about whether or not they believe that they're being treated fairly.

MIHALOPOULOS: Several women who used to be lifeguards told WBEZ they were disappointed by the investigation.

JULIE TORTORICH: I'd give them an F. I would have expected quick results from the city, and that just isn't happening.

MIHALOPOULOS: Julie Tortorich is 61 now and says she was abused as a teenage lifeguard for the Chicago park district in the 1970s. She's one of more than a dozen women who've spoken to WBEZ describing endemic sexual misconduct going back decades. Confidential documents obtained by the station show lifeguards have alleged a, quote, "huge incidence of sexual violence" and say managers long ignored obvious misconduct. Park district officials responded by suspending two officials who oversaw lifeguards. But whistleblowers and some elected officials were unmoved by those actions. Scott Waguespack was the first city council member to call for removal of the park district's top officials.

SCOTT WAGUESPACK: The #MeToo movement must have passed them by.

MIHALOPOULOS: Waguespack alleges that they treated the lifeguard abuse scandal like other city hall crises and downplayed the issue.

WAGUESPACK: Everybody's just sort of doing the classic Chicago thing of move along. They're all like, circle the wagons, circle the wagons.

MIHALOPOULOS: That approach appears to have stopped last week. Mayor Lori Lightfoot publicly called for park district CEO Michael Kelly to be fired immediately, and Kelly promptly quit his $230,000-a-year job Saturday night. But by then, the lifeguard scandal had caught the attention of law enforcement, and Cook County state's attorney Kim Foxx's borrowed a page from the playbook she used to build a sexual misconduct case against local singer R. Kelly. Foxx publicly invited survivors to come forward.

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KIM FOXX: No matter how old the allegation, if you believe that you have been a victim of sexual abuse or assault while working at the Chicago Park District, I ask that you call our Park District tip line.

MIHALOPOULOS: Foxx says she has assigned the case to two units in her office, one specializing in sex crimes, the other in public corruption.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Mihalopoulos in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.