Politics

Who’s To Blame for Astroworld? Anybody but Us, Say Houston Officials. – Texas Monthly

The day after the November 5 Travis Scott concert at Houston’s Astroworld festival, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called for “an objective, independent investigation” of how eight festivalgoers died in a massive crowd surge. (Two more spectators have since died of injuries sustained at the concert.) Standing next to Houston mayor Sylvester Turner and other local leaders, Hidalgo, the county’s top executive, promised an exhaustive inquiry. “The families of those who died, and everyone affected, deserve answers as to what took place last night,” she told reporters. 

It now appears that no such investigation will be conducted. On November 15, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, on which Hidalgo sits, voted 5–0 not to hire an outside firm to conduct a fact-finding investigation. Instead, the members pledged to support the criminal investigation into Astroworld by the Houston Police Department —whose own performance before and during the concert has been sharply criticized— and to conduct an internal review whose scope has yet to be decided. 

As part of a three-commissioner Democratic majority on the court, Hidalgo usually gets her way on close votes. In this instance, though, her desire for an independent investigation was thwarted by fellow Democrat Adrian Garcia, a retired police officer who publicly worried that such an effort would “open a door for liability that the county currently is not exposed to.” 

Lacking the votes for an independent investigation, Hidalgo reluctantly endorsed Garcia’s plan to support the HPD criminal probe while conducting an internal review of the county’s standard concert permitting procedures. “While this scales back my proposal, I am happy to see the court move as a unit with some next steps,” Hidalgo explained at the time. Reached Tuesday, Hidalgo’s communications director, Rafael Lemaitre, said the judge was “hopeful that the substitute proposal may yield some useful results.” 

Since the fatal concert, media attention has focused on the responsibility of Scott—a Houston native known for wild shows that have resulted in injuries to spectators—and of Live Nation, the international concert behemoth that promoted and organized the Astroworld festival. Scott and Live Nation are being sued for billions of dollars by the families of the victims and spectators injured at the event. But the performer and the promoter were not the only parties involved in putting on the concert. The Astroworld festival was booked and hosted by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, a public nonprofit entity that manages NRG Park, where the festival took place, and whose board members are appointed by the Harris County Commissioners’ Court. (The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation declined to make its board members available for an interview, citing pending litigation.) 

The festival received ten permits from the city of Houston covering everything from pyrotechnics to street closures. Some 530 Houston police officers were on the scene, and the Houston Fire Department had inspectors inside the venue and emergency personnel stationed outside the gates. 

Crowd control experts have cited numerous problems with the festival design, including inadequate access for emergency personnel and apparent lack of preparation for crowd surges. “Why did [local officials] sign off on this unsafe situation if the right protocols weren’t in place?” asked Paul Wertheimer, a crowd management expert who has been investigating deadly concert incidents for more than forty years. Many in the media have asked why police allowed the concert to continue for nearly forty minutes after declaring a mass casualty event. Still others have wondered whether Scott, a local favorite who has received a key to the city from the mayor, received less scrutiny—and was granted more leeway to bend crowd-safety rules—than other performers.

So far, none of the dozens of Astroworld lawsuits appear to have named Houston or Harris County as defendants. Tony Buzbee, the high-profile plaintiff’s attorney and unsuccessful Houston mayoral candidate, is suing Apple Music (which livestreamed the concert), the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, Live Nation, Scott, and about a dozen other entities on behalf of Astroworld victims—but not the city or county. “I could go sue a tree out in the yard and have just as much luck,” Buzbee told Texas Monthly when asked why he wasn’t suing the city or county. The Texas Tort Claims Act makes it almost impossible to successfully sue local jurisdictions, he said. “Even if it’s one of those claims where you can sue a city or county, there are very strict damage limitations. So I don’t personally make it a practice to sue public entities.”

An independent investigation might have changed that calculus. Garcia’s concern that a fact-finding inquiry could open up the county to further liability is a valid one, according to legal scholar Ted Field, who teaches torts at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Field said. “From a political standpoint, you want to be transparent and make sure there’s a proper investigation. But if the investigation turns up something bad for the county, that’s very damning. A potential jury might say, ‘Hey, your own investigation found you did something wrong.’ The dollar signs would light up in plaintiff’s attorneys’ eyes.”

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said local leaders appear to be scared about the impact Astroworld might have on their political careers. “This is a moment when politicians need to cover their backsides,” he said. “This is the kind of unfortunate event that can stain a political career. The first thing a lot of people may know about [local officials] is how they handled this.” Rottinghaus added, “If this flame turns into a wildfire, the political fallout could be significant. It reminds me of that meme where you have two Spider-Man duplicates pointing the finger at each other.”

In response to questions about what went wrong with the festival, officials have been quick to shift the blame. Mayor Turner emphasized in a statement that the festival took place on Harris County property. But the festival took place inside the city limits of Houston. Houston issued the concert permits, and Houston police officers helped secure the event. In a combative November 10 press conference, Houston police chief Troy Finner echoed Turner’s line, telling reporters that “it’s not a Houston-sanctioned event, it’s a Harris County–sanctioned event. The Houston Police Department did not take part in writing or agreeing to the original contract. Harris County, NRG, and Live Nation participated in that.” 

Finner also said that only Live Nation, not the police, could have stopped the concert, without clarifying why. Finner, who directed Texas Monthly to his previous statements on the matter when reached for an interview, later took to Twitter to say that the police department had in fact told event staff to shut down the performance but that HPD officers “don’t hold the plug.” Scott’s attorney, Edwin F. McPherson, who did not immediately respond to an interview request, contests that claim and has blamed the police for failing to shut down the concert. “There has been multiple finger-pointing, much of which has been by city officials, who have sent inconsistent messages and have backtracked from original statements,” McPherson said in a statement to Fox News

Hidalgo has said the “complicated web of entities involved” in the event made an independent inquiry especially important. “There are just so many players involved with this,” Hidalgo said at the November 15 commissioners’ court meeting. She had proposed that the investigators could be hired by the Harris County auditor, who operates independently of the commissioners’ court. But others, including Garcia, who spearheaded opposition to Hidalgo’s proposal, argued that a separate inquiry would interfere with HPD’s criminal investigation. 

“I have complete confidence in Chief Finner,” said Garcia, a 23-year veteran of the Houston Police Department and former Harris County sheriff. “I’ve known him for many years, and I believe his integrity is beyond reproach.” Finner argued at his November 10 news conference that the HPD is capable of investigating its conduct, as it does in internal affairs matters, and Garcia also pointed out that the FBI is providing technical assistance to the Houston police investigation

Without a truly independent investigation of Astroworld, however, the public’s best shot at the truth may come through lawsuits such as Buzbee’s. Law firms conduct private investigations, and can obtain internal documents through the legal discovery process. Garcia said that through those lawsuits and the HPD investigation, he’s confident the full story will eventually emerge. And if it turns out that Harris County shoulders some of the blame? “Look, if the county has some fault,” he said, “I’m ready to help write the check for that responsibility.”

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