Law firm releases report on investigation into 2020 lakefront misconduct allegations


Daily file photo by Maia Spoto

A law firm hired by the city released a report this week pertaining to sexual misconduct among lakefront staff last year.

Avani Kalra, Audience Engagement Editor

Content Warning: This story contains mentions of physical violence and sexual misconduct, including sexual assault.

On the heels of the resignations of Evanston officials associated with concealing information about sexual misconduct among lakefront staff, a law firm hired by the city released a report Feb. 20 investigating the lakefront’s working environment. 

Evanston is hiring a new manager after former City Manager Erika Storlie’s resignation was approved in August. Storlie’s departure was prompted by these allegations, as she oversaw lakefront personnel in her capacity as city manager shortly before Evanston’s lakefront.

The city’s law firm presented nine recommendations to improve employee culture and prevent future misconduct on the lakefront. The report urges the city to increase supervision, implement an overhauled system for hiring, training and discipline and enact new human resources policies and complaint systems. 

Evanston’s failure to act

The report determined city officials failed to properly address sexual misconduct, condemning former Evanston Human Resources Manager Jennifer Lin and former Director of Parks and Recreation Lawrence Hemingway for their failure to alert the city manager about the petition in 2020. The report recommends disciplinary action against Hemingway, who resigned around time the report was published.

City Council hired independent law firm Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter, PLLC to investigate the allegations and the city’s missteps after WBEZ Chicago broke the story about sexual misconduct allegations from more than 50 women against Evanston lifeguards in July 2021. A petition reporting this misconduct was presented to a group of city staffers including Storlie, but was not passed onto Evanston’s elected leaders until the WBEZ coverage went public. 

Origins of the Lakefront Petition

In summer 2019, several Evanston residents reported a relationship between a male lakefront supervisor in his 20s and a minor, according to WBEZ Chicago’s initial investigation.

Several other female employees also told city leadership the man made them feel uncomfortable prior to the petition, the new report said. After he was re-hired by the city to work on the lakefront in 2020, four women joined together to draft a petition about a persistent problem along Evanston’s lakefront. 

More than 50 women who experienced this misconduct signed the petition, sent to two city officials, including the lakefront manager. The petition included a long list of personal experiences the signatories shared, including disturbing comments, stories about being assigned to certain male supervisors at the supervisor’s request, the abuse of physical training and several accounts of sexual assault.

Lakefront Culture and Operations 

The law firm’s investigation revealed a lakefront culture and operation that permitted rampant sexual misconduct among employees on the lakefront. 

The report outlined a hierarchy that encouraged physical punishment as a form of discipline. One interviewee said the rookie training was the most terrifying experience of (her) life.

In the report, one female supervisor said her experience was similar to the Stanford prison experiment, a research experiment which publicized the idea that people in power are inclined to psychologically abuse their subordinates. The supervisor explained that a power trip is part of the culture. One common form of punishment at the lakefront during the period preceding the allegations was called “The Crucible” — a run-swim-run followed by 50 star jumps, then another run-swim-run followed by a swimming exercise, then another run-swim-run followed by 50 push-ups.  

The report said few women held higher-level supervisory positions at the lakefront. Moreover, supervisory staff, who were often in their 20s, did not always maintain professional boundaries with high-school-aged lifeguards.

According to the report, a problematic lakefront culture has existed for years. Since the 1990s, parties attended by the youngest members of the lifeguard chain and hosted by their bosses were common, the report said. Interviewees said there was widespread alcohol use at the parties. This culture incited rumors about inappropriate relationships and created peer pressure around substance use among minors, the report concluded.

Lakefront Manager Adam Abajian, the one permanent full-time city employee who oversaw the lakefront, was rarely able to spend time at the beaches and remained largely unaware of these transgressions, the report said. 

Sexual misconduct and its investigation

The report found that at the time of the investigation, relationships between supervisors and subordinates were common, many of which were not consensual nor appropriate.

Several women reported fearing repercussions if they ended their relationships with supervisors. There were also numerous reports of nonconsexual sex, and one individual on the lakefront leadership team instigated several nonconsensual sexual relationships according to the report. 

Because lakefront supervisors were often the perpetrators, employees lacked many options for reporting workplace misconduct, the report found. This meant misconduct often went unreported. Additionally, lakefront staff did not receive training on reporting processes nor typical and appropriate workplace conduct. 

Recommended Lakefront Changes

The report recommends several changes to lakefront culture and structures and argues the city should allocate additional full-time staff to the lakefront. 

The city’s legal counsel recommended lakefront employees use an outside source for investigations and implement a case management or tracking system to document all complaints and investigations. 

The report also advocated for choosing new leadership through a more formalized process, as well as stopping practices that assign jobs and promotions based on ranking of lifeguards’ physical performance. The report found these systems favored men because of biological advantages, allowing men to disproprotionately maintain positions of power. The report concludes physical training should not be used as a form of punishment in general. 

The firm wrote in the report that the city failed to create a healthy working environment. As city officials read and analyze the report, the firm encouraged them to use the recommendations to improve the lakefront’s structure so it is a safe place for all employees.

The city appointed interim Parks & Recreation Director Audrey Thompson eight days after the report was released.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @avanidkalra

Related Stories: 

Director of Parks and Recreation Lawrence Hemingway resigns amid lakefront sexual misconduct allegations

Councilmembers release formal apology addressing lakefront sexual harassment claims

Storlie may step down as city manager following allegations of sexual harassment by lakefront staff