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The state of the AstroWorld lawsuits

We’re still at the beginning of a very long road.

The roughly 2,500 plaintiffs who filed lawsuits in the aftermath of the Astroworld Festival are now part of what is expected to be a yearslong legal process to seek recourse from a variety of defendant for deaths and injuries suffered during the Travis Scott performance. 

Who can be held responsible is one of the first questions the team of prominent personal injury lawyers is tackling as the lawsuits have been consolidated into one case in the Harris County civil courts against nearly a dozen defendants, including Live Nation Entertainment and rap icon Travis Scott. Other targeted for contributing to the deadly chaos include Apple, concert promoter Scoremore Shows and event management ASM Global, all of who deny responsibility.

While Judge Kristen Hawkins has issued a gag order, preventing attorneys, plaintiffs and defendants from addressing the cases outside of court proceedings — and upheld it despite the objection of news outlets — records show an arduous process that has attorneys bogged down in debates over jurisdiction and responsibility for the 10 compression asphyxia deaths and the hundreds more injured.

Tactically, defendants can either point blame at one another or become a unified front to fight off the lawsuits, he continued.

He likened the sweeping multi-district litigation to the aftermath of the 2005 BP plant explosion in Texas City, which similarly had numerous plaintiffs and fatalities and was consolidated by the courts as a result. At one point, there were 4,000 lawsuits stemming from the explosion. Civil suits stemming from the BP plant explosion stretched on through 2008.

Astroworld may be an even larger undertaking because the case has about a dozen defendants, he said.

William Hubbard, professor of law at the University of Chicago, said many of the defendants will try shirking responsibility in order to dismiss the case against them.

Most of the cases will likely never go to trial in their original courts, he continued. As lawyers from both sides continue to meet in court, debating over evidence and jurisdiction, the end game is likely to settle and for how much.

“The defendants don’t want to defend thousands of trials,” Hubbard said.

At least two lawsuits have been settled, and suits for hundreds of plaintiffs have been resolved — although it remains unknown if those disputes were settled or dismissed. Most surviving plaintiffs are seeking $1 million, contending they suffered physical pain, emotional distress and mental anguish as a result of the concert chaos.

See here for the previous update and read the rest. I seriously doubt I’m going to be able to keep track of everything with this story, since a lot of the basic procedural stuff happens out of sight of the news and thus bloggers like myself, but I’ll at least keep an eye on the things that do get into the papers. In re: the reference to the 2005 Texas City explosion, I fully expect this to take more than the three years indicated for that because there will be appeals, and we know how long those can take. The one thing that can shorted this process is a settlement. I suspect we’re in for the long haul.

New regulations for outdoor music events proposed

Good idea, but it feels to me like there ought to be more.

Houston is considering tightening up permitting requirements for some large outdoor music events to avoid wasting city resources accommodating last-minute notices.

On Thursday, officials from the Houston police and fire departments went before City Council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee to discuss proposed revisions to how the city regulates special events. The suggested changes would apply only to outdoor music events with more than 500 attendees that take place on private property.

Meanwhile, regulations concerning events on public property, which have garnered considerable attention following the Astroworld tragedy last year, have not undergone significant changes, according to city officials.

Outdoor music events on private property currently are not subject to the same level of review and monitoring as those on public land, according to Susan Christian, director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. The latest proposal is aimed at closing that gap, she said.

Under the proposal, organizers would have to outline a detailed safety plan and submit permit applications at least 60 days prior to the event or pay a late fee. Organizers who violate any requirements could be on the hook for extra public expenses incurred by the city in connection with the event.

The proposal was prompted by a rising number of incidents in recent years in which organizers did not inform the city of their plans in a timely manner — often not until days before the events took place — sometimes resulting in thousands of dollars in additional costs for city staff and first responders, Christian said.

“A lot have happened since COVID, and we’ve seen on several occasions where this particular issue arises that has cost us a lot of money and pulled resources away,” Christian said. “We just need some help so that we’re not having to stop everything we do with some of these bad players.”

Seems reasonable. I’m a little puzzled by the statements about events on public property not getting any significant changes, but maybe there’s a semantics issue in there. There is a city-county task force reviewing “procedures, permitting and guidelines for special events”, which may still have something to say. There was also a state task force that issued some recommendations about permitting, which may or may not have any effect. I don’t know if any of this is enough, but I do want to know that everything is being reviewed and nothing is off the table.

We could maybe vote on a piece of the stupid revenue cap next year

Yippie.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he will ask voters in 2023 to amend the city’s cap on property tax revenue to allow for more public safety spending, as the council cut the city’s tax rate for the eighth time in nine years to get under that limit.

Turner said he would bring language to City Council shortly to put the measure on the November 2023 ballot, after At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh expressed concern about how the city will be able to afford the increasing police and fire budgets with strained resources.

“If there is strong sentiment on this council to at least allow the voters to decide, well, let’s put it this way: I’m willing to put it before you and then allow the voters to make that decision,” Turner said. “I will put it before you to be placed on the November ballot of next year.”

City Council voted unanimously to cut its property tax rate by about 3 percent, moving from 55.08 cents to 53.36 cents per $100 in valuation. The city accounts for about 20 to 25 percent of a standard Houston property tax bill, with about half going to the local school district.

The city’s cap on property taxes limits the growth in revenue to a formula that combines inflation and population increases, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower. The city hit the former mark this year, as is standard.

Houston first hit the cap in the 2015 fiscal year, and its tax rate since has fallen about 16 percent, down from 63.88 cents per $100. The city has missed out on about $1.5 billion in revenue as a result of those cuts, according to Turner’s administration. The owner of the median Houston home in that time has saved about $946, or about $105 per year.

[…]

Voters tweaked the cap in 2006 to allow the city to raise an additional $90 million in revenue for public safety spending. It was not immediately clear whether the ballot language Turner is proposing would increase that number or seek to carve out public safety spending entirely. The police and fire departments account for $1.5 billion in spending in the city’s current budget.

You know how I feel about revenue caps. At least this will give all those who rail against “defunding the police” the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are. I expect there will be at least one lawsuit filed over this regardless, and given what we’ve seen with other litigation it will still be ongoing in 2033.

The active shooter hoax at our neighborhood school

This made for a super eventful Tuesday afternoon.

Police and panicked parents scrambled to Heights High School Tuesday afternoon, in frantic response to a false report that a gunman had shot 10 people in a room on the 2,400-student Houston ISD campus.

The school went into lock down around 1 p.m., and police officers found the room locked and immediately breached the door, according to Chief Troy Finner. Two sweeps of the school found nothing, according to the Houston Police Department.

“We have no injuries here,” Finner said at a news briefing as a crowd of parents stood at an intersection near the high school. “Thank god for that.”

Officials intend to determine who made the hoax call and hold that person accountable. Finner said police believe the call may have come from outside the school.

“There was no active shooter here — there was a fight,” said Constable Alan Rosen.

An email notified parents later that Heights High, as well as nearby Hogg Middle and Harvard and Travis Elementary schools, were placed in lockdown.

“As a precautionary measure, we went into lockdown mode,” Heights Principal Wendy Hampton said in an email to parents. “Houston Police Department and HISD Police are onsite and continue to investigate, though no evidence has been found to substantiate the threat. We take all threats seriously as the safety of our students and staff is always our top priority.”

As it happens, I had to go into the office Tuesday afternoon. I was headed out a little after 1 PM, and was on Studewood going towards the I-10 entrance when I saw three HPD cars with lights and sirens going headed the other way at full speed. I didn’t give it much thought until after I had arrived at the office, took a minute to check Twitter, and found out what was happening. I don’t currently have any kids at Heights or the other schools that got locked down, but my kids have friends there and I have friends and neighbors who have kids at all of them. It was pretty stressful, to say the least, and I had the luxury of not having to be frantic about my own kids. My thoughts today remain with those parents and those kids.

Shannon Velasquez burst into tears on Tuesday afternoon as she waited on the sidewalk near Heights High School, where her daughter and hundreds more students were locked down in their classrooms after someone made a false report about a mass shooting.

The mother knew her daughter was fine — she had spoken with the sophomore student on FaceTime as she sped to school from work.

Still, she could not shake a horrible feeling, and her frustration bubbled over as she heard conflicting information from parents and officers about where she should go to reunite with her child.

“As if this isn’t bad enough?” she said. “I just can’t wait to put my arms around my kid.”

Anxiety, panic and confusion erupted on Tuesday afternoon in the residential streets surrounding Heights High School. Personnel from at least eight law enforcement agencies sped to the scene with lights and sirens. Panicked parents rushed from jobs and lunch appointments. Some drivers ditched their cars on the grassy median along Heights Boulevard, and walked or ran several blocks to the school.

Parents gathered information from their children, other parents, news reports and officials — eventually learning that their kids were safe and the massive frenzy actually stemmed from a false alarm.

Still, some parents said they were frustrated by sparse communication from the school, district or law enforcement agencies, although HISD and law enforcement agencies have defended their response.

[…]

Luis Morales, HISD spokesman, said notifications went out to parents 23 minutes after the district became aware of the situation.

“We were able to get that out a quicker than we have before,” Morales said, adding that the district must verify information before sending out notifications.

Chief Troy Finner said during a news briefing on Tuesday afternoon that he sympathized with parents who were frustrated. But safety comes before notifications, he said.

“We have to search the school. That is the most important thing — to stop the threat if there’s a threat,” he said. “We don’t have time to call. Once we make it safe, we start making those calls.”

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena said more than two dozen units from HFD responded to the scene. The first unit arrived two minutes after HFD received the call, he said, and quickly began coordinating a rescue team with police.

“The community expects the first responders to get on scene quickly, to get on scene and coordinate and start taking action as soon as they get on scene,” he said. “That’s exactly what we did.”

I have nothing but sympathy for the parents here. I was scrambling around looking for accurate information too, and the stakes were much lower for me. I have no doubt I’d have been out of my mind and super upset at how long it took to get updates. I also have a lot of sympathy for HISD and HPD, who were understandably reluctant to get out ahead of what they knew. I don’t have a good answer for this.

As relieved as we all are that this turned out to be nothing, we have to talk about the law enforcement response, since that is an obvious item of interest after Uvalde. In addition to HPD, there were deputies from the Precinct 1 Constable and the Sheriff’s office at the scene, and I assume there were some HISD cops as well. We do know that HPD entered Heights HS in search of the alleged shooter, which is good to know, but we don’t know more than that about who was in charge and who was making what decisions. Given what we know about the thoroughly botched response in Uvalde, this should be used as an opportunity for HPD and HISD to review their processes, make sure they have agreements in place, and so on. In the end, thankfully this was just a drill. We damn well better learn from it.

Investigating abortions is Houston’s “lowest priority”

So says Mayor Turner, and I’m glad to hear it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday that investigating abortions under the state’s near-total ban is the city’s “lowest priority” when it comes to crime.

Turner said the city would continue to marshal its limited law enforcement resources toward driving down violent crime. While the city cannot ignore the law, Turner said, he wanted to assure medical professionals and pregnant Houstonians that police here will not seek to interfere in sensitive health care decisions.

“I want women to get the best health care that we can offer in this city, and I don’t want doctors or health care providers or practitioners to second-guess themselves in providing the best health care,” Turner said at a City Hall news conference. “We cannot undo the law, it is on the books. It is what it is. We cannot supersede it, but we certainly can prioritize how our resources will be used in this city.”

[…]

Matt Slinkard, the city’s executive assistant police chief, acknowledged the city is duty-bound to enforce the law, but said Houston Police Department officers would remain “laser-focused” on violent crime. Police officials told City Council this week that violent crime is down 10 percent year-over-year, though it remains above pre-pandemic levels.

Slinkard said he was not aware of any complaints filed with the department since the law took effect last week. The mayor also sent a letter to District Attorney Kim Ogg outlining those priorities.

Turner spoke at City Hall along with members of the city’s women’s commission and council members, a majority of whom are women.

Like I said, good to hear. As you know, multiple other Texas cities have taken similar action, via the passage of an ordinance called the GRACE Act. Those have spelled out the things that the city and its law enforcement agency intend to de-emphasize to the extent that they can. One thing those cities have in common is that they all operate under the weak mayor/city manager form of government. I feel pretty confident that’s why they passed these ordinances via their city councils – their mayors don’t have the executive authority to set those policies on their own. It’s possible there could still be a Council vote of some kind on this, but for the most part I’d expect this to cover it. I really hope it’s all an academic exercise, that in a few months we’ll have a Congress and a Senate that can pass a national abortion rights law. Until then, every bit of local action is appreciated.

Houston will have a bond on the ballot

First I’d heard of this, but it should be pretty routine.

Houston will ask voters in November to approve a $478 million bond program to buy fire and police vehicles, renovate or replace city facilities and give the city’s animal shelter a new home.

City Council voted 16-1 Wednesday to approve an election for Nov. 8, Houston’s first bond referendum since 2017. District G Councilmember Mary Nan Huffman was the lone no vote.

If approved by voters, the city would sell the bonds to investors and use the proceeds on infrastructure. It would pay back the money, plus interest, with debt service over a longer term. The proposed debt package does not include an increase in property taxes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the strategy in formulating the plan was to be “very pragmatic” and avoid creating a “wish list” of spending items. A massive increase in debt service would put a drag on the city’s operating budget, he said. Houston has paid an average of $340 million over the last four years to pay down past public improvement bonds.

To that end, the package primarily would be used to fund $194 million in already-planned projects in the city’s capital budget that have no current funding source. They are listed in the plan as being paid for by a “future bond election.”

The proposal also would hold $156 million to address the city’s backlog of deferred maintenance and $60 million to help cover higher inflation costs. Also included are $45 million for a new animal care building, $13 million for new parks facilities, and a $10 million earmark for improvements to Agnes Moffitt Park in Timber Oaks. District A Councilmember Amy Peck won council approval on an amendment to tack that project onto the proposal during the vote Wednesday.

[…]

In the broader bond package, more than half — $277 million — would go to public safety, $50 million to parks, $47 million to BARC, $29 million in general government improvements, $26 million for libraries and $6 million for Solid Waste Management.

Among the projects already in the works: $87.5 million for police and fire vehicles and equipment, the $13.7 million replacement of Fire Station 40 on Old Spanish Trail, $9.2 million in other fire station renovations, $8.8 million for the renovation of five health and multi-service centers, and $2.8 million in upgrades to City Hall.

All of that spending will be dependent on voters’ approval in November.

There will also be a Harris County bond referendum on the ballot as well. If past form holds, both will be split into multiple items, each one specific to a purpose. In 2017, two years after the last Harris County bond referendum, all five Houston items passed with 72 to 77 percent of the vote. I will be surprised if there’s any serious opposition to this.

HISD buys stuff for its police

Okay, but I hope the plan to deal with an active shooter has more than this in it.

Houston ISD trustees Thursday evening approved a measure to buy 200 rifles, ammunition and 200 ballistic shields for the district’s police department, which Superintendent Millard House II said last week was not prepared with its current equipment to stop an active shooter.

Trustees voted 6-3 on the purchase after spending roughly an hour in closed executive session discussing the item and about 20 minutes of intense discussion from the dais. Trustee Dani Hernandez proposed postponing the measure by a week because she was “not willing” to proceed without more specific information. That effort, however, failed with a 3-6 vote.

Earlier in the meeting, about a dozen speakers urged the board to delay the vote or to vote no.

“I need more information about the broader safety plan for the district in general. At this time, I don’t believe I have all the information I need,” Hernandez said before the vote. “I don’t think that we have explored all options at this point — safety is essential for HISD.”

HISD Police Chief Pete Lopez told the board last week he was confident in the training the police department had received but he did “not have a lot of confidence in preparing our officers to encounter a suspect without the proper equipment.” The equipment to be purchased would be used to help with scenario-based training to learn how to respond to such a threat.

“My officers are dedicated to our students and to our staff and regardless if we have the equipment or not, we are still going to respond,” Lopez said after the vote. “This act tonight will allow us to respond in a safer manner.”

The police gear will be for specific situations, not items that police will walk around with, House said.

“The bigger issue here is ensuring that they have all the tools possible so that they can be as safe as possible,” House said, “and provide the kind of safety that we want to provide on campuses.”

See here for the background. While in general I tend to think that most police departments have (and spend money on) too much stuff, I don’t have an opinion on this particular purchase. I’ll accept that they need it in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. I will just say again that all the manpower and equipment added up to diddly squat in Uvalde, so what I want – what I would think we would all want – is to know that there’s a plan in place for this kind of horrific scenario, and training in place to back it up. I still haven’t seen any talk about that, and that concerns me. Buying stuff is the easy part. Please reassure all of us that you’re at least working on the hard part, HISD.

How would HISD’s police respond to an active shooter incident?

It’s a question we would all rather not have to think about, but this is the world we live in. And at this time, the answer that Superintendent Millard House gave to that question was not reassuring.

Houston ISD’s police department would not be prepared should Texas’ largest school district be targeted by active shooter, Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday night.

“I don’t know that this has garnered community insight but what I do know is that, if there was an active shooter in HISD, our police department is not prepared,” House said during an agenda review meeting.

His remarks were in response to questioning from Trustee Dani Hernandez regarding an item the board is expected to vote on during next week’s meeting for purchase of items worth more than $100,000. The specific agenda item includes various purchases for the school district’s police department.

House said the district would be buying 200 rifles, 200 ballistic plate shields and rifle ammunition.

“As we study the Uvalde scenario and looked at what … proper preparation that needs to be in place, officers would not have been prepared for what that looks like,” House said.

[…]

Hernandez asked what research was guiding HISD, instead of feelings. House asked HISD police Chief Pete Lopez to share information in response to her question.

Lopez said research showed police who were better prepared helped in stopping a shooter faster. He was confident about training the district’s police force — estimated to be more than 200 employees — had received. But he did “not have a lot of confidence in preparing our officers to encounter a suspect without the proper equipment.” He said they needed scenario-based training to learn how to respond to such a threat.

The school district has about 195,000 students.

“The equipment that I’ve requested is to provide additional training to teach the officers how to breach the doors, how to use those shields and also quickly enter that room and neutralize the suspect,” Lopez said. “And of course save our students and our staff.”

Like I said, nobody wants to have to think about this. Given that we have to, there are two things that I want to know up front, based on what we have witnessed from Uvalde. One is that there is always a clear definition of who is in command at such a scene. While it’s unlikely that DPS and Border Patrol would show up at an HISD school wit an active shooter, HPD and the Sheriff’s office will almost certainly have officers on the scene. Make sure that there is a written policy that says who is the leader, so that we don’t have a nightmare situation where dozens of cops are waiting around for someone to tell them what to do. And two, the policy must also state that the top priority is going after the shooter, again to avoid a repeat of what happened at Robb Elementary. Everything else, from best practices to training to equipment to whatever else can be provided for. First and foremost, we have to make sure that there’s a commitment to stop the person or persons responsible for the shooting. You wouldn’t think this is a thing that needs to be said, and to be clearly spelled out in an official document for which there would be severe consequences for now following it, but it is and we do. So let’s make sure we have one. Campos has more.

Texans get sued for allegedly “turning a blind eye” to Deshaun Watson’s sexual harassment

We kind of knew this was coming.

Attorney Tony Buzbee has filed the first lawsuit against the Texans, saying the franchise enabled former quarterback Deshaun Watson, who last week settled 20 of 24 civil lawsuits filed by women who say he sexually assaulted and harassed them during massage therapy sessions.

The lawsuit says the owner of Genuine Touch, a massage therapy company that partnered with the Texans, reported Watson’s habit of “seeking out an unusually high number of massages from strangers on Instagram” to the Texans as early as June 2020, but the franchise “did nothing about it.”

Buzbee announced plans earlier in June to add the Texans as defendants in some of the lawsuits, and, last week, Buzbee said his focus shifted toward tagging the Texans onto the four remaining suits to argue that they facilitated Watson’s massage sessions at a local hotel, effectively enabling the massages away from team facilities, and provided non-disclosure agreements for those sessions.

“We are aware of the lawsuit filed against us today,” the Texans said in a statement Monday. “Since March 2021, we have fully supported and complied with law enforcement and the various investigations. We will continue to take the necessary steps to address the allegations against our organization.”

Watson pursued at least 66 different massage therapy sessions despite having a full Texans training staff available to him, plus the services of Genuine Touch, a specified massage therapy entity, the lawsuit says. Genuine Touch provided massage therapy to Texans players at the team’s facilities, the lawsuit says. Sometimes the therapy was available seven days a week.

Watson “refused to have massages done at the Texans stadium and instead preferred to reach out to strangers on Instagram for massages,” the lawsuit says, which adds “the Texans were well aware of Watson’s preference.”

The lawsuit says individuals within the Texans organization “knew or should have known of Watson’s conduct” and “turned a blind eye” on Watson’s behavior and “protected and shielded” their franchise quarterback in an attempt to also protect the organization itself.

Watson used Texans resources for his massage therapy sessions, the lawsuit says, which include a room the Texans set up for Watson at the Houstonian Hotel, massage tables the franchise provided him for private massage sessions and the NDA that [Brent Naccara, a former Secret Service agent who is the Texans’ director of security] provided him.

Roland Ramirez, Houston’s director of athletic training and physical therapy, told the Houston Police Department that he and Jack Easterby, the Texans’ executive vice president of football operations, helped secure Watson a membership at the Houstonian. Watson wasn’t old enough to secure a membership, Ramirez said, and Ramirez said he tagged his name to the membership as a third party.

Watson confirmed in his depositions that the Texans provided him the Houstonian membership he used to book rooms for massages, and the lawsuit notes the Houstonian has a physical therapy and massage staff that would’ve been an alternative to the women Watson pursued on Instagram.

The lawsuit says Ramirez received “several complaints” from the Houstonian’s general manager, Steve Fronterhouse, about “Watson and the number of women coming to Watson’s room there.”

Ramirez also told HPD that he found it “strange” when Watson asked him if he could borrow a massage table in August 2020.

A copy of the lawsuit is embedded in the story; there are also some allegations of gross behavior by Watson that I’ve skipped over. Beware if you want to read the whole thing. Tony Buzbee had talked about adding the Texans as a co-defendant in some of the lawsuits. This is a separate filing, which may partially be the result of many of those suits now being settled and thus unavailable as vehicles for action. Other topics covered in the story include the testimony from the HPD detective who thought Watson had committed crimes, and the huge number of massage therapists that Watson contacted during the time in question. There’s still a lot to be examined and discovered here, it would seem.

We’ll know later today how big a suspension the NFL will seek against Watson. I wonder now if perhaps the team will face some discipline as well. That would be up to the discretion of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and I’d wager it would come down to how bad the Texans look in all this, and thus how bad they make the league look. It’s too early to say on that, but we know that the more we learn about this whole thing, the worse it looks, so let’s keep an eye on it. Defector and Sean Pendergast have more.

Too much Deshaun Watson news

The lawsuit counter ticks up again.

The official number of lawsuits pending against Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will indeed increase to 26.

Attorney Tony Buzbee tells Josh Voight of WEWS in Cleveland that two more women will be suing Watson.

Buzbee said that one of the plaintiffs came to him via a referral from a lawyer in Atlanta. The other plaintiff saw last month’s feature regarding the allegations on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.

So how many more will there be? Last week, Jenny Vrentas of the New York Times reported that Watson got massages from at least 66 women in a 17-month period. The 24th lawsuit against Watson, filed last week, contends that Watson received more than 100 massages from “random strangers” he found on Instagram.

Seems to me we can’t answer that question just yet. Not until we know what the total number of women who could plausibly sue him is. And that number, no one (except maybe Watson himself) has any idea what it is.

Speaking of which, Watson could certainly do more to make this all stop, if he wanted to.

“I just want to clear my name,” Watson said, explaining that he wants to let the facts come out in a court of law. This means that, for now, he intends to keep fighting these cases. All of them. The 24 already filed. The two more to come. And any others that may eventually be filed.

The process will take time. None of the cases will go to trial until after March 1, 2023. And, without settlements, 26 trials will take a lot of time. The cases likely will linger into 2024. Depending on the final number of cases filed, the trials might not end until 2025.

Watson also was asked about the contention (not a report, but a contention) from one of the lawsuits that he offered $100,000 to each of the plaintiffs last year.

“There was a process that was going on back in November with another organization,” Watson said, without specifically addressing whether settlement offers were made to resolve the cases so that he could be traded to Miami. However, his lawyer, Rusty Hardin, already has said publicly that the Dolphins wanted the cases to be resolved before a trade would happen, and that an effort was made to do so.

Watson was asked whether he stands by his statement from March that he has “no regrets” about what happened.

“I think that question kind of triggered a lot of people,” Watson said, explaining that he was saying he never assaulted, disrespected, or harassed anyone. He acknowledged that he does regret the impact of the existence of the various cases has had on “many” people.

And what of the report from the New York Times that Watson received massages from at least 66 women in a 17-month period? Is that number accurate?

“I don’t think so,” Watson said, before deferring to his lawyers.

I don’t know what happened between Deshaun Watson and all these women. I do know that it’s impossible to believe that nothing untoward happened.

At some point, the NFL needs to decide what it believes.

Last month, Deshaun Watson‘s lawyer said they expect to hear something from the NFL in June. As of tomorrow, June is already halfway over. And there’s no indication that the league is ready to do anything.

Then again, there rarely is any such indication of what the league will do, until the league does it. If the league will be trying to suspend Watson without pay to start the 2022 season, time is of the essence.

Remember, it’s a three-step process. First, the league office proposes discipline. Second, the Disciplinary Office (retired judge Sue L. Robinson) evaluates the case, conducts a hearing (if she deems it necessary), and makes a decision. Third, unless Judge Robinson decides to impose no discipline at all (which would end the process), the Commissioner handles the appeal. His decision is final.

It will take time for the second and third steps. At the latest, it needs to be resolved before Week One. Ideally, the Browns will have an answer before the start of training camp. (Then again, the Browns can’t complain about the current uncertainty; they made this bed.)

With two more lawsuits to be filed, pushing the total to 26, and with no indication as to what the final tally will be, it’s making more and more sense for the NFL to press pause on Watson’s career via paid leave, letting him focus on putting these 26 cases (and counting) behind him for good.

That is a thing the league could do. I’m sure the league would like to see these stories end.

I will say again: The longer this goes on, the worse it looks.

A Houston police detective testified this week that she believed Deshaun Watson committed crimes after investigating 10 criminal complaints against him, according to a pretrial deposition transcript obtained by USA TODAY Sports.

The detective, Kamesha Baker, said she expressed her opinion to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. But she wasn’t called to testify before the grand jury in Harris County, Texas, and doesn’t know why the grand jury didn’t indict the Cleveland Browns quarterback on criminal charges. She said she believed Watson committed criminal indecent assault, sexual assault and prostitution in cases where money was exchanged and there was consensual sex.

“Did you feel confident that you had the evidence needed to pursue those charges?” Baker was asked in the deposition.

“Yes,” Baker said.

“And was there any doubt in your mind as the investigating officer that a crime had occurred?”

“No,” Baker said.

Baker testified in a pretrial deposition for the civil litigation against Watson in Houston, where he has been sued by 24 women who have accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions in 2020 and early 2021. Eight of those women also filed complaints with Houston police about Watson’s conduct, in addition to two other women who filed police complaints who have not sued Watson in civil court.

That one of the detectives involved believed this is perhaps not surprising. It doesn’t mean it’s true. The point is, there is still a lot we the public don’t know about these cases. And like I said, the more we find out, the worse it all looks. Sean Pendergast has more.

City passes its budget

Not too much drama.

Houston’s $5.7 billion budget for the next fiscal year includes a big jump in revenue from water bills, raises for all city employees and the largest unspent reserves in years.

City Council voted 15-2 to adopt Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget Wednesday after working through more than 100 amendments pitched by council members. Councilmembers Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh were the lone no votes. The budget takes effect when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Dozens of amendments were ruled out of order after the mayor cracked down on proposals he said dealt with matters outside the budget. Only 16 amendments won approval, and just four actually moved money or enacted a practical change. The rest merely directed departments or the city to “study” or “explore” or “assess the opportunity” of new ideas, with no requirement to adopt or implement them.

“Over the last few years I’ve been very lenient. When I see that leniency being abused, I exercise my authority,” Turner said at the beginning of the meeting. “Now, I’m calling it as it should have been called…. I’m not going to be here all night on non-budgetary amendments.”

The approved budget relies on $130 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and a $100 million spike in sales tax revenue to close deficits and help the city pay for previously announced pay raises. It also reserves $311 million for the future, when the city may face larger deficits as the federal funding runs out.

The most notable consequence for residents will stem from water bill rate hikes previously passed by council last year. Revenue from water and wastewater bills increased by 9 and 20 percent from a September hike, and again by 7.5 and 11 percent from an increase in April.

The rates vary by customer type, meter size and usage, but the bill for a customer who uses 3,000 gallons of water went from $27.39 before the hikes to $37.18 after the April increase. The rates will continue to rise every April through 2026.

As a result, the budget passed Wednesday included a 23 percent increase in water revenue, from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. That $280 million accounts for much of the $487 million increase in this year’s overall budget. The bulk of Public Works’ budget comes from that water revenue, a so-called “dedicated fund” where the money must be spent on water infrastructure and service.

The $3 billion general fund, which is supported by property taxes and other fees and supports most core city services, marks a $240 million increase, or 9 percent, over last year. Most of that increase pays for raises for firefighters (6 percent), police officers (4 percent) and municipal employees (3 percent).

More than half of the general fund supports public safety, with the $989 million police budget taking the largest share of resources. The fire department’s budget is $559 million.

The budget does not include a property tax rate increase. Turner has said he also plans to increase the exemption for seniors and disabled residents, although such a measure has not yet reached City Council.

See here for the background. In regard to the water rates, I will remind you that the city is as of last year under a federal consent decree to “spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system”. The story doesn’t mention this, but the money is for that purpose, and if it’s not used for that purpose we’ll be dragged back into court. As for the rest, I’m glad we’re building the reserve back up, I suspect we will be needing it again soon.

The injury totals from AstroWorld

A lot of people were seriously hurt at that event.

More than 700 people were seriously injured during November’s Astroworld Festival tragedy, according to new court documents filed in Harris County this week.

Plaintiffs attorneys Jason Atkin, Richard Mithoff and Sean Roberts notified 11th Judicial District Judge Judge Kristen Brauchle Hawkins that they’d conducted a survey of people affected by the lethal Astroworld tragedy, which claimed the lives of 10 concertgoers late last year, including a 9-year-old boy and 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl.

According to the attorneys’ survey, some 732 people filed claims tied to injuries requiring significant medical treatment. An additional 1,649 claims were tied to injuries that required less extensive treatment, and they were also reviewing 2,540 claims for injuries where the severity was not fully ascertained.

The filing provides the latest and most complete picture, so far, of the toll of the Astroworld Festival, a local music festival which drew tens of thousands of visitors to Houston from across the region and the rest of the country.

[…]

The defendants in the lawsuit, Live Nation Worldwide, Scoremore Mgmt, ASM Global, Travis Scott, and others, generally deny the allegations, court records show.

One of the companies, Contemporary Services Corporation, has come under additional criticism, after a man successfully jumped onstage during a comedy show in Los Angeles last week and attacked Dave Chappelle.

Scott — who pleaded guilty to reckless conduct after urging fans to rush the stage during a 2015 show in Chicago and to a charge of disorderly conduct for similar behavior during a 2017 show in Arkansas — has consistently denied wrongdoing and asked to be removed from the lawsuits.

See here for the most recent update. The deaths of the ten concertgoers have been the headline of this story, but the sheer number of people that were badly injured would be grounds enough for the litigation that has followed. We can and should have investigations and task forces to look into what happened and why, but the discovery process is going to tell us a whole lot about this tragedy that we otherwise would not have known.

It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Once again relying on federal money, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed $5.7 billion budget for next year would pay for raises for all city employees, offer tax relief to seniors and disabled residents, and sock away the largest reserves in years for savings, according to an outline Turner shared Tuesday at City Hall.

The city often faces nine-figure budget deficits, forcing it to sell off land and defer costs to close gaps. For the third consecutive year, though, the city will rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money to avoid a budget hole and free up other revenue for the mayor’s priorities.

The city is set to receive more than $300 million this year from the most recent stimulus package approved by Congress, and Turner has proposed using $160 million in the budget. The city has received more than $1 billion in such assistance over the last three years.

City Council is expected to propose amendments and vote to adopt the spending plan next month. The budget will take effect on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

With about $311 million in reserves, Turner is establishing the healthiest fund balance the city has seen in decades, which he called necessary given the uncertainty of rising inflation, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The city budgeted $205 million in reserves last year, the first time it exceeded $200 million in reserves since 2009. The city’s financial policy calls for an unassigned reserve worth 7.5 percent of the general fund; this year’s amount is nearly double that, 13.5 percent.

That money also will help the next mayor and council confront budgets when the federal assistance runs dry and the city must fend for itself, Turner said. The relief funds must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

“I think what we all recognize is that some of the major cost-drivers will be driving this budget for the next several years… I don’t want to put future mayors and council members in a worse position,” Turner said. “As the city weans itself eventually off the (federal) funds, you’re going to be back with the fund balance.”

You can see a list of things in the proposed budget herer. HPD, HFD, Solid Waste, and Parks and Rec all get increases. We’ll see how spicy the amendments process is.

Missing In Harris County Day 2022

From the inbox:

For those with missing loved ones and those who would advocate for them, an annual event May 14th in Houston is the place to be for resources, awareness, and more.

May 14, 2022, is Missing in Harris County Day (MIHCD).  To celebrate and commemorate this occasion, local, state and national agencies with a mission to find missing persons ask you to attend Missing in Harris County Day on Saturday, May 14, from 10 AM to 3 PM at The Children’s Assessment Center, 2500 Bolsover Street, Houston, TX 77005. MIHCD’s mission is to help those with missing loved ones make connections that can help bring the missing home.

Families and friends of missing persons as well as interested members of the community are encouraged to attend the event to learn how to navigate the missing persons system. Agencies at the event to assist families and friends of missing persons include social service agencies and various missing persons networks, such as Texas Center for the Missing.

The event will feature:

  • Local law enforcement agencies accepting missing persons reports and updates from families of the missing
  • Trained DNA collection specialists collecting voluntary family reference DNA cheek swabs to upload into a national missing persons database
  • Bilingual guides assisting all attendees in the completion of a missing persons report or directing attendees to resources
  • Private roundtable discussion for family members with a missing loved one
  • Panel discussions addressing missing persons issues and more!

Families or friends should plan to bring information to the event for data entry or information updates in the national missing persons database, including:

  • Photos of the missing with identifying features (e.g., tattoos or birthmarks) or personal items (e.g., favorite earrings or shirt)
  • X-rays, dental or medical records
  • Police reports or other identifying documents that can be scanned and placed on file
  • Two biological relatives from the mother’s side of the missing loved one to voluntarily submit DNA samples, if desired

More information is available at: http://centerforthemissing.org/missing-in-harris-county-day/.

Attendees are welcome to wear memorial t-shirts and bring posters, photos, or literature to display to commemorate their missing loved ones on the “Wall of the Missing.” The “Wall of the Missing” is a centralized location at the event for all attendees to view missing persons information. Documents placed on the board will not be returned after the event.

About Missing in Harris County Day

Partners in the Missing in Harris County Day event include the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, Texas Center for the Missing, and The Children’s Assessment Center. Other collaborators and in-kind sponsors of the event include: Alexandria Lowitzer Recovery Fund, Alzheimer’s Association, CODIS, Consulate General of Mexico in Houston, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Doe Network, Galveston County Medical Examiner's Office, Harris County Community Services Department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, NamUs – National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, Pasadena Police Department, Project Guardian, Project Lifesaver, Texas Equusearch, and TEXSAR Gulf Coast Division. Law enforcement connected to the event will not be checking for citizenship documentation or for arrest warrants.

See here for more. The event takes place on Saturday, May 14, at the The last MIHCD was in 2019; I’m sure you can guess what caused the interruption. The Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences sent me all of the press information on this. There’s free parking available at the location, so drop by and learn something. Maybe you’ll have some information to impart, who knows.

Along those lines, the IFS also sent me this list of people who have died and are in the county morgue but have not been claimed by their next of kin. It may well be that their families don’t know what has happened to them, which is another way to be missing. If you know anything about any of these folks, call the IFS with what you know at 832-927-5000 – there’s a case number for each.

Houston updates its noise ordinance

This was probably inevitable, though it sure took a long time.

Houston bars, nightclubs and restaurants must obtain new permits to play amplified music within 120 days under a revised ordinance aimed at cracking down on disruptive late-night noise without sacrificing the city’s vibrant nightlife.

City Council approved amendments to the noise ordinance in a 15-1 vote Wednesday, two years after council members first began considering ways to address disputes between homeowners and neighboring businesses. Complaints against bars and clubs nearly doubled in the first three months of 2022.

The revamped noise ordinance sets stricter limits on nighttime noise and requires businesses abutting homes to obtain permits to play amplified music. It also creates a new administrative hearing process for bars and nightclubs that violate noise limits, giving business owners the chance to craft a mitigation plan within 10 days of the violation or risk losing their commercial sound permits for up to a year.

The permit will cost business owners $1,200.

Permitted businesses can play amplified music up to 75 decibels, which is about as loud as landscaping equipment, until 10 p.m. on weeknights or 11 p.m. on weekends. After those cutoffs, music would have to stay below 58 decibels until 2 a.m., as measured from the property of any resident who calls the Houston Police Department to complain.

At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who shepherded the rule changes to the vote, said the amendments target repeat violators that “flaunt the rules” and are “destroying quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods.”

“These changes aim to strengthen current rules and bring more businesses into compliance,” Alcorn said Wednesday.

[…]

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, council members did not discuss the city’s shifting demographics or the apparent connection between gentrification and increased noise complaints. Under the ordinance, enforcement largely will rely on nonemergency calls for service or 311 complaints, a feature experts said may lead to inequitable treatment among neighborhoods.

The changes moved ahead over objections from At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh, the sole dissenting vote. Kubosh said he worried it will have little impact while overburdening police officers with enforcement.

“Where is the actual solution here?” Kubosh said after the vote. “Why would we tie up police with noise when they are busy responding to murders, aggravated assaults and people stealing catalytic converters?”

Not mentioned in this story and forgotten about by me until I went looking in my archives is that Council had passed an update to the noise ordinance back in 2011 that was aimed at big vibrating bass sounds, as well as making the language of the ordinance more specific. It did not have an auspicious debut, though perhaps by now it has been more successful in its application. Noise complaints in various gentrifying parts of the city, especially but not exclusively the Washington Avenue corridor, have been a thing for a long time. I’ve expressed some skepticism in the past towards the complainers on the grounds that the noisy bars and music venues were there first, but after all this time I think this approach makes sense. Maybe we can at least get some consistency, so that everyone knows and understands the rules from the beginning.

As for CM Kubosh’s complaint regarding enforcement, he has a point but the same thing could be said about literally any other law. I would not make noise enforcement a top priority for HPD, but I can think of some things above which it should be elevated. CultureMap has more.

State task force recommendations on AstroWorld

Interesting.

To avoid a repeat of the mayhem at last year’s deadly Astroworld Festival, Texas needs to standardize its event permitting process, establish “clearly outlined triggers” for stopping shows and ensure local public safety agencies are organized in a clear chain of command during large events, a state task force recommended Tuesday.

The event permitting process currently is “inconsistent across the state, which can lead to forum shopping by event promoters,” according to the task force that recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

The group, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott after 10 people died from injuries sustained during rapper Travis Scott’s show last November, also advised event promoters to develop “unique contingency plans” for venues including NRG Park — formed by a series of parking lots — that fans can easily stampede. The venue perimeter was breached at least eight times leading up to Scott’s 2021 performance.

Presenting its findings in a nine-page report, the Texas Task Force on Concert Safety said its recommendations are “narrowly tailored to address gaps that were identified as contributing to safety failures at the Astroworld event.” Members of the task force who met over the last five months included law enforcement officials, public safety experts, state agency employees and music industry representatives.

“While some level of risk is inherent in any mass gathering, it is the opinion of the [task force] that proper planning will allow Texans to enjoy safe performances, concerts, and other culturally significant events,” the report reads.

More uniform permitting regulations would also help mitigate confusion that can arise at venues located under the jurisdiction of multiple government entities and public safety agencies, the report found.

The Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within the city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Still, the task force found “there was no occupancy load issued for the event, which is typically determined by the Fire Department.”

“A consistent permitting process could have helped establish jurisdiction and authority over ultimate event shutdown in the face of a life-threatening incident,” the report reads.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said there was no occupancy permit for the Astroworld Festival because such permits do not exist for outdoor areas. The event organizers did secure permits required under the city fire code for pyrotechnics, tents and propane. The city released those and other permits in November.

“The event was a county-sanctioned event on county property,” Peña said Tuesday night, adding that he had not yet fully reviewed the task force’s report.

The task force report is here. It’s pretty straightforward, I don’t see anything unexpected or eye-catching about it. I must have missed the announcement of this particular task force, I don’t have a previous post about it. Whatever, this is fine.

That doesn’t mean that it is without some controversy.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie L. Christensen on Wednesday rejected findings issued by a state task force which laid some of the blame for the Astroworld tragedy on the county’s handing of the incident.

[…]

The task force recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

But the findings again raise one of the central issues related to the Astroworld tragedy: Ever since it occurred, city and county officials have sought to avoid blame for the fiasco by pointing fingers at each other.

The task force pointed to two laws that have permitting requirements — one related to mass gatherings, and one related to outdoor music festivals. Both refer to county events, because incorporated municipalities can create their own ordinances.

The situation is complicated by the fact the Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within Houston city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Echoing other county officials who spoke to the Chronicle, Christensen said she had reviewed the task force’s findings, but that the task force cited statutes that “simply do not apply” to the Astroworld event. The laws, she said, apply “only to performances outside the boundaries of a municipality.”

“The fact the Astroworld event occurred within the City of Houston along with the (memorandum of understanding) between Harris County and the City of Houston clearly shows Harris County lacked any jurisdiction for permitting the Astroworld event,” she said. “Our office will continue reviewing the recommendations over the next several weeks.”

City officials, including Fire Chief Sam Peña, have argued that the event was “a county-sanctioned event on county property.”

I’m not particularly interesting in a pissing contest between the city and the county, but it is fair to point out that the laws cited by the report didn’t apply here because of the county-property-within-city-limits aspect of NRG Stadium. That doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders and move on, but if it is more complicated than the report suggests, then we need to wrestle with the complexity. This is the point at which I’m officially out of my depth, so let me just say that we’re not off the hook and we shouldn’t act like it.

I should note further that there is a local task force working on its own report, and that first story gave us an update on it.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, another task force – this one selected by city and county officials – continued to meet to review communication, protocols and permitting requirements locally. City officials had more to say about that task force’s work than the one in Austin. Mary Benton, spokeswoman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said the mayor has not yet reviewed the state task force’s report but would do so soon. She said the local group continues to meet and will write its own report for Turner and Precinct 2 Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“The task force will incorporate nationally agreed principles and draw from national and international strategies, policies, guidelines, standards, and doctrine,” Benton said. “The work is multidisciplinary and will cover issues presented by crowded places and mass gatherings in general. The task force has already begun this work, met earlier today and has meetings planned in the future.”

County Fire Marshal Christianson is among the local task force members. I look forward to reading that report as well. And now that the state has done the local task force the favor of publishing first, we here can respond to it as needed. Just get moving and get it done.

City Council approves security camera ordinance for bars and convenience stores

I have mixed feelings about this.

Houston bars, nightclubs and convenience stores must install security cameras outside of their buildings within 90 days in a citywide surveillance effort Mayor Sylvester Turner hopes will diminish violent crime in high-risk areas.

City Council approved the measure in a 15-1 vote Wednesday after a lengthy discussion on the merits of cameras as a deterrent to robberies, shootings and other criminal activity officials say is concentrated at the nighttime businesses. The ordinance also applies to game rooms and sexually oriented businesses.

The camera requirement is a minor component of the mayor’s One Safe Houston agenda, which will funnel more than $44 million in federal relief funds to mental health and crisis intervention services over the next three years. It passed over objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the plan to fine businesses for failing to turn footage over to the Houston Police Department upon request within 72 hours.

The ordinance, which also requires convenience stores to install enhanced lighting at their entrances, overcame skepticism from council members who worried it would penalize business owners and overburden police. Businesses could face a $500 citation if they fail to provide police with surveillance footage within three days of a crime.

[…]

Police Chief Troy Finner thanked the council for passing the camera requirement Wednesday, calling it “a force multiplier” that will help his department solve more crimes.

Finner said his department is crafting protocols to guide its collection of businesses’ video footage following a crime. Police will be required to obtain a warrant in the event a business does not volunteer footage, officials said.

We’ve been talking about security cameras as a crime-fighting tool in Houston for at least 15 years. As of the year 2014, HPD had nearly 1,000 camera feeds available to it, mostly around downtown, stadiums and event spaces like the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Theater District. It’s no unreasonable to think that these have had some effect on crime and crime-solving. Bars, nightclubs, and convenience stores are higher-crime areas in general, so they’re a logical place to want to have security cameras. I’m more or less okay with the concept, though I share the ACLU’s concerns about privacy and transparency; given the track record with police body camera video, who wouldn’t be concerned?

My hesitation here is more prosaic. As noted, we’ve had a ton of these cameras around town for a decade or more. We therefore have a huge amount of data relating to their use and their efficacy. Can HPD provide some evidence to back up the claims that more cameras and/or strategically-placed cameras do in fact have a salutary effect on crime? Like I said, I’m inclined to believe it, but it sure would be nice to have some empirical backing of that belief. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. So please, show us the evidence, HPD. And a year or so after these new cameras have been installed, show us the evidence for their effect, too.

Deshaun Watson must disclose whether he had sex with 18 massage therapists

There’s a headline for you.

NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson now will have to answer whether he had sex with 18 additional therapists who came to his defense about his massage habits last year, according to a ruling Tuesday by a Texas judge.

Watson is being sued by 22 other women who accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions in 2020 and early 2021. As part of the pretrial discovery process in those lawsuits, their attorneys have sought to have Watson answer written “requests for admission” about whether he had sex with the 18 therapists who publicly supported him after the lawsuits against him started in March 2021.

Watson, who recently was traded to the Cleveland Browns, previously refused to answer these questions, saying it was harassing, private and not relevant, according to an objection filed by his attorneys in court.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys countered by saying it will help show Watson’s pattern and motives in seeking massages with dozens of different women, many of whom he met on social media. They asked the court to compel him to answer, leading to a hearing in court Tuesday between the two sides.

Harris County District Court Judge Rabeea Sultan Collier decided in favor of the plaintiffs, overruling the objection by Watson’s attorney, Leah Graham.

[…]

The plaintiffs’ attorneys also succeeded in their quest to compel Watson to produce certain other information about his history of massages since 2019, as well as any language about massages in his contract with the Houston Texans, Watson’s previous team. The judge gave Watson’s team 30 days to comply.

“We will continue to force Mr. Watson to answer our questions and reveal the full parameters of his conduct,” plaintiffs attorney Tony Buzbee said in an e-mail afterward.

[…]

In the case of the 18 therapists at issue, they did come out to support Watson publicly one year ago in statements released by his attorney, Rusty Hardin. They said Watson, 26, never made them feel uncomfortable during their interactions with him, unlike the other 22 women who are suing him. Hardin’s strategy with releasing such information at the time apparently was to take some heat off his client. A year later, Watson must answer more about his histories with those 18 women, if there were any, according to the judge’s ruling.

Graham called it a “fishing expedition” by the plaintiffs and not relevant to the specific allegations in individual lawsuits.

Plaintiffs attorney Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey disagreed, telling the judge Watson “went to massage therapy sessions intending to have sex, intending to do something else, not have a massage.”

“That is at the heart of this case,” she said.

She added “we’re not asking whether he had sex with anybody in the world” but instead with specific therapists, including the 18 who had “voluntarily publicly identified themselves.”

I probably have a post that noted the massage therapists who publicly supported Watson, but I didn’t go looking for it. I don’t think I have anything to add to this.

First round of Deshaun Watson depositions

He hasn’t had much to say so far.

Four days after a Harris County grand jury chose not to indict Deshaun Watson, the Texans quarterback answered questions for the first time while under oath in connection to 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and harassment during various massage appointments.

Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed suit, began deposing Watson on Friday. But Watson asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself while the criminal investigation was still ongoing. Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, said his client would no longer decline to answer questions since the criminal case has concluded.

Buzbee said he spent Tuesday’s deposition questioning Watson about two of his accusers for close to four hours. A judge allotted Buzbee 48 hours to question Watson under oath, and with the next deposition scheduled for March 22, the civil litigation could stretch beyond April before it is potentially resolved in court.

[…]

Tuesday revealed a potential pattern for future depositions. Buzbee said he questioned Watson in reference to the massage therapy sessions involving the two women. Buzbee said Watson told him “he did everything right” and didn’t offer lengthy answers about specific incidents because he said he couldn’t remember one session from another.

Buzbee requested texts and Instagram exchanges between Watson and the women. Buzbee said his clients provided the information, but Watson had deleted all of his Instagram messages and none of the “six or seven” phone numbers he provided had been involved in text exchanges.

Hardin said it was “a normal process” for Watson to delete his Instagram messages. Watson has 1.4 million followers on the social media platform, and Hardin said Watson regularly deleted messages “when he no longer was having contact with somebody,” but did not delete any messages once the lawsuits were filed.

Watson changed his phone number frequently because of his celebrity status, Hardin said. With such a high rate of public exposure, people would “start calling him and texting him” once they got a hold of his contact information.

See here for the previous update. I actually drafted this before the trade; life comes at you fast. Lots of people delete various things on social media as a matter of policy, and I’m sure plenty of famous people change phone numbers often, for the reasons stated above. I might not be able to remember an individual massage session on a given date, if nothing out of the ordinary happened during it. That doesn’t mean we can’t look askance at Watson’s answers to these questions. Tony Buzbee says later in the article that when this all goes before a jury – Rusty Hardin confirms in the story that they are not looking to settle – it’s going to come down to who the jurors find to be more credible. I completely agree.

Deshaun Watson traded to Cleveland

He’s someone else’s problem now.

The Texans have traded Deshaun Watson to the Browns. The quarterback waived his no-trade clause for Cleveland after initially eliminating the franchise, a person with knowledge of the negotiation said, but Watson reversed his decision Friday after the Browns offered a five-year contract worth $230 million.

The new contract, which is fully guaranteed, preceded the terms of the trade. The Texans will receive Cleveland’s first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024, the Browns’ 2023 third-round pick and 2024 fourth-round pick.

Once finalized, the trade will end one of the longest and messiest divorces in Houston sports history. The 14 month-long saga began with the former franchise quarterback’s trade demand and ended after a Harris County grand jury declined to indict Watson following a criminal investigation that was triggered by 22 women who filed civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and harassment during various massage therapy sessions.

The blockbuster trade did not yield the second-round picks that were part of the returns second-year general manager Nick Caserio solidly requested for almost a year, but it remains enough capital to reinforce the new regime’s efforts to sculpt the franchise in their own image.

The rebuilding franchise also cleared Watson’s previous four-year, $156 million contract extension off the books, which immediately boosts Houston’s roster budget as the free agency period begins. Caserio has made frugal signings so far by re-signing 15 players and acquiring nine other veteran players, but the executive now has the financial freedom to become more aggressive.

Meanwhile, the civil litigation involving Watson remains ongoing. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, said Tuesday “there’s no discussion” about settling any of the cases. Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed lawsuits, has been deposing Watson in four-to-six hour blocks and said it could be well beyond April before the cases are potentially brought before a jury in civil court.

The NFL has yet to render a decision from its own investigation into Watson. The league could potentially suspend for an unknown number of future games, although it’s possible a punishment won’t be handed down until the civil litigation ends.

Not really much to say here. Once there were no charges filed against Watson, everything fell into place for him to be traded, as teams were willing to live with whatever civil action (and likely league suspension) would happen, just not criminal penalties. Watson himself basically dictated the terms thanks to his no trade clause. And now he’s gone, and whatever one might have once felt about him and his abilities on the field, that’s gone as well. I’ll keep an eye on those civil cases because they do matter even if they no longer truly affect his football career, but I’m happy to not think about Deshaun Watson otherwise. Good riddance. Rivers McCown and Sean Pendergast have more.

No charges against Deshaun Watson

Good for him, I guess.

A Harris County grand jury on Friday declined to indict Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, choosing not to criminally charge him in nine alleged instances of sexual assault or harassment during various private massage appointments, according to Johna Stallings of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

The decision came down the same day Watson was deposed in connection with two of the 22 civil lawsuits against him, which are separate legal matters. Watson declined to answer questions under oath, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself during that proceeding, attorney Rusty Hardin said.

Neither of those cases in the deposition involved women who filed criminal cases against the quarterback, however. Tony Buzbee, who is representing the women who filed suit, said Friday he asked Watson several hundred questions over about three hours of depositions.

Watson, 26, has denied any wrongdoing.

After the grand jury’s decision was announced, Hardin said he is ready to move forward.

“We are delighted that the grand jury has looked at the matter thoroughly and reached the same conclusion we did,” Hardin said in a statement. “Deshaun Watson did not commit any crimes and is not guilty of any offenses.”

See here for the previous entry. I don’t know what I expected from this, but getting no-billed was certainly on my list of possible outcomes. As for the depositions:

While a Harris County grand jury eight blocks away met to decide whether to criminally indict Deshaun Watson, the Texans quarterback spent Friday morning at his attorney’s downtown office building where he declined to answer questions while under oath for the first time in connection to 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and harassment during various massage appointments.

Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed suit, said he asked Watson several hundred questions over about three hours of depostions. In each, Watson asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

Buzbee said there was no connection between Friday’s two legal proceedings. A judge allotted Buzbee 48 total hours to depose Watson, and, on Friday, Buzbee said he asked Watson about facts and circumstances in reference to two women who did not file criminal complaints and believes his clients are “entitled” to hear Watson’s version of events.

“There should be no incrimination involved at all,” Buzbee said. “If you didn’t do anything wrong, if you didn’t do anything illegal, answer the question. It would be one thing if we were asking questions about the women that have filed criminal complaints. We’re not doing that.”

Days before the deposition, Buzbee said he received written testimony from Watson that he had no communication with either woman. Buzbee also requested Watson to provide any phone number that he may have used to communicate with the women. Watson provided seven or eight phone numbers, Buzbee said. Buzbee claimed to have a combined 50 pages of communication between Watson and the women, and he said none of the phone numbers Watson provided had been used in those communications.

Hardin said Watson is “more than willing to talk” in the civil depositions but was following his advice not to incriminate himself while the criminal case was ongoing. When asked how the answers from a deposition with women who were not involved in the criminal investigation would be used against Watson, Hardin said “I have no idea.”

“But you would never take that chance,” Hardin said. “That’s the point. The issue is, is the lawyer going to allow his client to give a civil deposition on the same subject matter that is currently being considered by a grand jury and you won’t find a lawyer who will.”

Hardin said Wastson will waive his silence and answer questions in the civil case after the criminal investigation is resolved, and he said Buzbee has wanted Watson to plead the fifth all along because it gives him an advantage in the civil cases.

Again, I guess I’m not surprised. I’m certainly not in any position to question either Hardin or Buzbee’s legal strategy. The one thing everyone seems to agree on at this time is that this clears the path for the Texans to trade him, as other teams had been waiting to see what happened with the criminal charges. The civil cases, which will continue on in court, didn’t scare them. Make of that what you will. Sean Pendergast has more.

AstroWorld lawsuits get underway

This is going to be fascinating, heartbreaking, infuriating, and a lot more.

Lawyers packed a Harris County civil courtroom Tuesday morning as the judge overseeing litigation stemming from the deadly Astroworld Festival concert outlined the first steps to organize the hundreds of cases since they were consolidated late last year.

The appearance marked the first time lawyers for some of the plaintiffs and defendants had set foot in a courtroom since the Nov. 5 tragedy, when nearly a dozen concert-goers — including children — died from compression asphyxia as a crowd surge pushed people together at the NRG Park festival.

“Our first cattle call,” is how Houston personal injury lawyer Brent Coon described the hearing — an attempt to organize the more than 300 lawsuits tied to the deadly show. Some lawyers were ushered into an overflow room. The plaintiffs include victim families, survivors and employees.

The Board of Judges of the Civil Trial Division of the Harris County District Courts decided in December to consolidate the suits into one filing, with 11th District Court Judge Kristen Hawkins tapped to oversee the proceedings. The civil judge in February issued a gag order preventing the parties involved from discussing the case outside of what happens in open court and relevant motions. She said the case “should be tried in the courtroom and not social media.”

[…]

The meeting identified lawyer Jason Itkin to speak for the plaintiffs in the mass of lawsuits, and Neal Manne for the defendants — which include Live Nation, rapper and headliner Travis Scott and others.

More than two dozen defendants have yet to respond to the litigation, Coon said, adding that the next gathering in four weeks will be crowded with more lawyers.

As noted in the story, there were a lot of lawsuits filed, with a lot of plaintiffs and some eye-popping numbers. It’s going to take awhile for all this to even get to pretrial motions, let alone the actual trial. Tune in at the end of March for the next likely update.

Deshaun Watson will face some depositions

A long-awaited update on this case.

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson must undergo depositions in connection to at least some of the 22 misconduct allegations made against him before April, a judge on Monday ordered.

Lawyers involved in civil litigation against the athlete on Monday argued whether Watson should wait until after April 1 to take questions on the allegations. His attorney, Rusty Hardin, expressed concern that depositions could provide evidence in a separate criminal investigation being conducted by the Houston Police Department.

“We know that the police have forwarded to the (Harris County) district attorney’s office their findings and their conclusions,” Hardin said in the 113th District Court.

From that point, a grand jury will decide whether criminal charges against Watson are merited. When that could happen is uncertain — but Hardin appears to believe his client’s fate in the criminal matter may be known by April 1.

Watson is accused of sexual misconduct during several massage therapy sessions, the bulk of which are said to have happened in 2020. Eight of the 22 accusers have filed police reports.

Hardin argued that his client should hold off on sitting down for a deposition — while lawyer Tony Buzbee, representing the accusers, argued that Hardin should stick to the schedule they agreed upon at the suit’s beginning. The ongoing HPD investigation should not make a difference in the civil case either, he said.

Buzbee said delaying Watson’s deposition further is unfair to the plaintiffs who have already endured 75 hours of questions as part of their lawsuit against him. Depositions are a procedure that allows lawyers in the case to question those involved about the allegations. Watson is accused of sexual misconduct during several massage therapy sessions, the bulk of which are said to have happened in 2020.

[…]

Judge Rabeea Collier ruled, partially, in Hardin’s favor.

Six women have yet to undergo depositions, lawyers said. Of those women, Buzbee can depose Watson on their allegation ahead of April 1 — as long as the accuser is not among those who filed a police report, Collier ruled.

“I’m allowing you to take Mr. Watson’s deposition on case specific details for those who have not filed a criminal complaint,” Collier said in court.

The police investigation was among the reasons why Hardin asked Collier last week to postpone Watson’s deposition until April 1.

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen on April 1,” the judge said, adding that Hardin can seek a stay if he wants.

See here and here for the most recent updates. The court had signed an agreement in May that said Watson could not be deposed before February 22, which is to say this past Tuesday, and that some of the women who accused him of sexual misconduct would be deposed beginning in September. As Sean Pendergast notes, this likely means that the criminal case that HPD has investigated will come to some sort of resolution in the next month or so, as the case is now in the hands of the DA’s office. Though if he’s indicted on one or more charges, that just moves things to another stage, one that may also take a long time to work through. There’s also that FBI investigation, and who knows what that may mean.

So we’re getting closer to something, whatever it may be. As for Watson’s football fate, go read Pro Football Network and Rivers McCown for more. There’s a chance that could get resolved as well in the next couple of months, but it seems that a lot of things would have to happen for that.

Here comes that AstroWorld task force

Got to admit, I had thought this had already happened.

Three months after 10 people were killed at the Astroworld Festival at NRG Park, Houston and Harris County have named a 10-person task force to review procedures, permitting and guidelines for special events in the region.

The task force, made up mostly of city and county officials, will seek changes to ensure the city and county collaborate better on events that draw large crowds. The group plans to meet monthly, but members said Wednesday they do not know when they will release recommendations.

The officials left Astroworld unmentioned in their initial remarks, but later acknowledged the concert tragedy directly inspired the task force’s formation. Still, they insisted the group would look forward, not backward at any one event, and would not spend considerable time trying to determine what went wrong at the concert festival.

“I think anyone of us would be dishonest if we say it didn’t precipitate it. Certainly, it did,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, adding later: “This task force is going to be futuristic. The investigation into the Astroworld event continues, so we certainly do not want to impede in that investigation.”

[…]

The task force will be chaired by Susan Christian, the director of the mayor’s office of special events, and Perrye K. Turner, Sr., the deputy county administrator and the former FBI special agent in charge of the Houston division.

It will also include Houston Police Chief Troy Finner, Fire Chief Sam Peña, and Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen, as well as Steven Adelman, vice president of Event Safety Alliance; Rob McKinley, president of LD Systems, a production services company; Major Rolf Nelson of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office; Ryan Walsh, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp; and Mike DeMarco, chief show operations officer for the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

As noted in the story, Commissioners Court decided against launching an independent investigation into the disaster, opting instead to let the law enforcement investigations do that work and to conduct an internal review. It’s not totally clear to me if this task force is the fulfillment of that “internal review” item, but I suspect it is as there’s no other mention of it that I can find, in this story or via Chronicle archive search. The task force, which was put together by Mayor Turner and Commissioner Adrian Garcia, looks fine, it’s just a matter of what their scope is and when they intend to produce a report. We’ll see.

It’s not like there aren’t a bunch of other things going on that will tell us more about the tragedy and things we could or should have done differently. In addition to the law enforcement investigation and all of the lawsuits, which should produce a lot of info when and if they get to the discovery phase, there’s also a Congressional probe and an FBI website seeking input from witnesses. This task force has a different and more focused mission, and if they do their job well it should produce something worthwhile. We’ll know soon enough.

FBI seeks Astroworld info

Spill ’em if you got ’em.

The FBI has created a website that seeks information on the deadly Astroworld Festival, the Houston Police Department said Friday.

Members of the public can upload photos and video from the Nov. 5 event at NRG Park. Police said in a statement that they’re specifically looking for media from between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. “of the main venue area,” which can be uploaded at fbi.gov/astroworld.

“HPD continues to lead this investigation and we appreciate the assistance from our federal partners at the FBI,” the statement read. The federal agency has previously offered to help with the investigation.

I genuinely have no idea how likely this is to result in usable, actionable information. For that matter, it’s not really clear to me what HPD might uncover in its investigation. I think we’re more likely to learn things from the county’s internal investigation and from the various lawsuits – whichever one gets to discovery first will probably be the main source of new information. But you never know.

Another look at the Aguirre/Hotze debacle

Man, do I ever want this to be the end of Steven Hotze as a political force.

A well-funded far-right group—that made inroads with Stop The Steal organizations, paid a former police captain more than $200,000 to hunt ballots, and became entangled in a roadside stickup—was making war plans for Election Day 2020 months ahead of time, documents reveal.

The fringe group, the Liberty Center for God and Country (LCGC), led a lucrative fundraising blitz in the run-up to the election and quietly networked with now-notorious election denialists. Their work came to light in October of that year when former Houston Police captain Mark Aguirre allegedly rammed his SUV into a man’s truck, forced the man onto the ground at gunpoint, and accused him of transporting 750,000 fraudulent ballots. Aguirre’s claims were baseless—his victim was an innocent air conditioner technician—and no widespread voter fraud has been found in the 2020 election. Aguirre was indicted this week for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

The criminal charges outed the LCGC, which had quietly moved hundreds of thousands of dollars in the name of preventing voter fraud in the months before the election, launching a website and fundraisers in the months before Nov. 3.

In the fall of 2020, as Donald Trump trailed Joe Biden in the polls, Republican activists sought ways to sow doubt in the event of a possible Trump loss. Aguirre and LCGC were among them.

Aguirre’s description of himself as a “retired” police captain (he’d actually been fired for a disastrous raid) was the least of the fundraiser’s lies. Although the fundraiser shed little light on Aguirre’s “team,” the fundraiser was launched one day after Aguirre signed an affidavit in a lawsuit accusing Houston-area Democrats of widespread voter fraud.

The lawsuit, filed by Republican activist Steven Hotze, accused Texas Democrats of a plot to defraud voters, in part by offering early voting and more voting locations. Some of its claims rested on supposed evidence collected by Aguirre and a former FBI agent who, like Aguirre, later became a private investigator.

“Based on interviews, review of documents, and other information, I have identified the individuals in charge of the ballot harvesting scheme,” Aguirre wrote. Aguirre’s involvement with Hotze went deeper than the lawsuit suggested. In late August, according to business records, Hotze formed the LCGC. The group’s earliest web presence called on Trump to designate three days “for national repentance, fasting, and prayer.”

[…]

In order to crack down on alleged fraud pre-election, the LCGC allegedly hired Aguirre to investigate people it suspected of running fake ballot rings. According to charging documents, Aguirre admitted to surveilling the home of air-conditioning technician David Lopez-Zuniga, on the suspicion that the Houston man was running a scheme to force children to sign 750,000 fraudulent ballots. Aguirre allegedly rammed Lopez-Zuniga’s car off the road, forced him onto the ground at gunpoint, and knelt on his back before an actual police officer was able to intervene. The day after the incident, the LCGC sent $211,400 to Aguirre’s bank account.

The LCGC was pulling in big money, its fundraisers suggest. In addition to Aguirre’s GoFundMe, which earned at least $2,600, the group operated its own GoFundMe, which raised nearly $70,000 from mid-October to mid-December.

The LCGC also registered as a nonprofit—a status that would be useful when networking with a burgeoning movement of voter fraud hoaxers.

See here, here, and here for a bit of background; there’s more if you go looking for the bogus and universally losing lawsuits Hotze filed in 2020. The Washington Post did a deep dive on this about a year ago, and I’m glad to see others are continuing that quest. The possible key to ending this little piece of madness is the lawsuit filed by AC repairman David Lopez, which has survived a motion to dismiss and will surely provide a lot more evidence of wrongdoings as it proceeds. All I want for Christmas for the next 20 years or so is for a verdict to come down that absolutely bankrupts Steven Hotze. Link via Daily Kos.

New details about the Deshaun Watson criminal investigation

All sorts of bad things from the search warrants.

Houston police have at least nine reports accusing Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions, with search warrant records showing that investigators are eyeing indecent assault — a misdemeanor crime — as a possible criminal charge.

The three search warrants — signed in October by a judge to collect data from Watson’s Instagram and Cash App usage — shed light on the Houston Police Department’s criminal investigation into the athlete, who has not been charged with a crime, amid months of litigation from nearly two dozen lawsuits. The search warrants detail accounts from nine women who say their encounters with Watson devolved from massages to misconduct.

The women reported receiving Cash App payments after the sessions, with some amounts ranging from $100 to $300, according to court records.

In two incidents at The Houstonian Hotel, the football player pressured the women into performing felatio, court records show. One licensed massage therapist said Watson contacted her on Instagram and that they met in June 2020 for a massage without incident. During a second appointment at the Memorial-area hotel, he asked her for oral sex.

The woman “felt as if she had no choice,” the investigator wrote.

[…]

Much of the accusations outlined in the search warrants were already detailed in civil lawsuits against Watson but investigators also revealed aspects of the case not previously made public using interviews that the Forensic Center of Excellence — a Houston group of forensic nurses who specializes in trauma — conducted with the accusers.

The Houston Police Department acknowledged in April their investigation into Watson but have declined to comment since. The civil litigation, meanwhile, is still pending.

Investigations by the FBI into Watson’s alleged behavior and the NFL are also happening. Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, has denied wrongdoing by the quarterback, saying any sexual encounters with massage therapists were consensual.

On Wednesday, Hardin said he welcomed the police department’s investigation into his client’s records.

I’ve skipped over most of the more graphic stuff. The HPD investigation is still ongoing, the civil litigation is awaiting the first court dates, and Watson is still a non-playing member of the Texans. Not much else to say at this point.

Aguirre indicted

Gotta admit, I had thought this happened long ago.

A Harris County grand jury on Tuesday indicted former Houston police captain Mark Aguirre on an assault charge after he was accused of running a man off the road and pointing to a gun to his head because he thought he was committing voter fraud in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Aguirre will face a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The trial currently is scheduled to begin in February.

Prosecutors allege Aguirre slammed into the back of an air conditioning repairman’s truck at about 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 19 of last year. He pulled a gun, forced the repairman to the ground and put a knee on his back. He ordered another person to search the truck. A police officer happened upon the scene shortly after.

Aguirre, who was fired by the police department in 2003, would later tell investigators he was conducting a “citizens investigation” into an alleged ballot harvesting scheme he thought was orchestrated by local Democrats. He told police they would find hundreds of thousands of ballots in the repairman’s truck.

They found only air conditioning parts and tools. Aguirre said he had been following the repairman for four days.

Aguirre, a licensed private investigator at the time, was hired to investigate fraud claims and paid about $266,400 by the Liberty Center for God and Country around the time of the incident. That group is led by Steven Hotze, the local conservative activist, and Jared Woodfill, the former Harris County Republican Party chairman.

See here, here, and here for some background. Aguirre was arraigned almost exactly a year ago – I genuinely have no idea why it took so long for there to be a grand jury and an indictment. I mean, sure, COVID likely didn’t help, but he was arraigned in peak COVID times, so I don’t know what the effect would be. With the trial scheduled for February, maybe things will move a little faster now, but if you want to explain to me why this all just happened now, please feel free. In the meantime, at least the lawsuit against Steven Hotze is proceeding apace.

Travis Scott speaks

Really not sure this was his best move.

Amid countless lawsuits against him, Travis Scott sat down with The Breakfast Club radio personality, Charlamagne tha God, for his first public interview since a dangerous crowd surge injured hundreds and left 10 people dead during his Astroworld Festival performance on Nov. 5.

In a one-hour discussion shared to Charlamagne’s YouTube channel on Thursday, Scott, whose real name is Jacques Berman Webster II, shared that he’s been experiencing a range of emotions, largely grief, trying to wrap his head around the tragedy and remained consistent to previous statements denying his knowledge of the severity of the mass casualty incident until the press conference that occurred after his set.

“Even after the show you’re just kind of hearing things, but I didn’t know the exact details until minutes before the press conference,” he said, adding, “And even at that moment you’re like, ‘Wait, what?’”

“People pass out, things happen at concerts, but something like that… it’s just like,” he added before trailing off.

[…]

In response to criticism that the event was poorly planned and understaffed, Scott pointed to the responsibilities for all involved. An artist is responsible for the creative side of the show, he said while he trusts the “professionals” to control what they can in the crowd and “make sure that people are taken care of and leaving safely.”

“You can only help what you can see and whatever you’re told,” Scott said responding to a question about the responsibility an artist has to help in that type of situation. “Whenever somebody tell you to stop you just stop.”

James Lassiter, a Houston attorney representing the family of Bharti Shahani, a 22-year-old Texas A&M University student who died, and other injured festival attendees, responded to Scott’s interview Thursday afternoon.

“Travis Scott’s attempt to escape responsibility for creating a deadly situation from which his fans could not escape is shameful and, sadly, true to form,” he said in a statement.

Houston’s NRG Park, where the festival was held, occupied up to 50,000 guests that night, a crowd size that Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said he had enough officers onsite to handle. But he also said he could not have abruptly ended the show for fear of sparking a riot his department could not control.

Finner said the “ultimate authority” to end the show resided with LiveNation and with Scott. The two parties have largely taken the hit for the continuation of the concert for an additional 37 minutes after local authorities declared the event a mass casualty.

But in the interview, Scott said that part was never communicated with him directly.

Scott also denied the tragedy having anything to do with the crowd size as there have been festivities “way bigger,” he said.

“It’s not about the maximum of it, I think it’s about the attention to what’s going on and how it’s going on, and as long as that’s handled then I think things will be okay,” he said. “But as you look at it through the history of festivals, this isn’t the first time happening. It’s been a long history of this.”

The Astroworld Festival tragedy already ranks among deadliest U.S. concerts ever.

Scott said he believes he did everything he could possibly do to help. While he’s not surprised to be at the epicenter of the blame since he’s the “face of the festival,” he said he thinks the responsibility should be a shared load for everybody collectively to “just figure out the bottom line solution” to the problem to make sure this never happens again.

I dunno, man. I Am Not A Lawyer, but I’m pretty sure the right move in this kind of situation is to keep your mouth shut and limit any public remarks to “I can’t comment on pending litigation”. I feel very confident that all of the lawyers suing him – as well as counsel for the various co-defendants – will be listening to this interview very closely, and will be ready to pounce on any inconsistency that arises from future statements given under oath. I understand where he’s coming from, and whatever else happens I have empathy for him, but I can feel his lawyers cringing from here.

I’ll see your AstroWorld lawsuit and raise you $10 billion

That’s a big number, though that’s partly because there are a lot of plaintiffs.

A local law firm has just filed the largest suit to date against Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival after the mass-casualty tragedy that claimed the lives of 10 concert-goers. Attorney Brent Coon is demanding $10 billion in restitution on behalf of 1,547 attendees — that’s more petitioners than any firm thus far.

Additionally, Coon’s firm, Brett Coon & Associates, has filed a request with the Harris County District Court system to consolidate all cases involved into one courtroom to provide for more efficient management of the docket on behalf of all claimants, per a press release. A hearing is scheduled for December 13, 2021.

Aside from the mammoth suit, Coon notes in a statement that he is demanding legislative action to include crowd control planning specialists to certify events, mandated training programs for event preparation and criminal liability for any wrongdoing.

[…]

Coon’s suit comes after a $2 billion filing by San Antonio lawyer Thomas J. Henry and a $750 million petition by Houston attorney Tony Buzbee.

See here for some background, and here for the Chron story. I assume the mention of consolidating the cases is a reference to the many others that have been combined and will be heard in Harris County via the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel.

Not much else to add to that story, so let me note a couple of other AstroWorld items that I didn’t put into their own post. First up, Travis Scott is seeking to be dismissed as a defendant from eleven lawsuits.

Houston rapper Travis Scott has responded to 11 lawsuits launched against him in the deadly Astroworld festival tragedy denying all liability and requesting he and his record label Cactus Jack Music be dropped as defendants, according to court documents.

Scott, whose real name is Jacques B. Webster II, has been named in hundreds of lawsuits totaling billions of dollars since the tragedy that took 10 young lives on Nov. 5. Scott’s attorney Ed McPherson issued a “general denial” on his behalf to allegations claiming he was to blame for the deaths and injuries of concertgoers.

Scott is also requesting the claims be “dismissed with prejudice” so that once finished, cases cannot be refiled.

Representatives with Scott’s legal team said in an email to the Chronicle that the request is “a standard response to the plaintiff filing and reiterates what’s already been out there that Travis is not legally liable.”

One of the 10 victims, 22-year-old Texas A&M student Bharti Shahani, died nearly a week post-festival after succumbing to injuries that left her on a ventilator. Her family filed suit against Scott and festival organizers and refused to accept Scott’s financial assistance for funeral expenses. Their lawsuit is one of the 11 Scott’s lawyers responded to.

Not clear to me from the story why Scott is taking this action in only eleven lawsuits, or why these specific eleven lawsuits. Maybe they have something in common, maybe they were just first in line, maybe he’s in settlement talks with the others, maybe full dismissal will be sought for others. I have no idea, but given the high-powered legal team working for Scott and Live Nation, I’m sure this is just a first step.

Other AstroWorld stories that I have skimmed but not found anything original to say about:

Exclusive: CEO of Astroworld medical provider recalls moment when routine festival spiraled out of control

How missed warning signs at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival led to one of the worst U.S. concert tragedies

8 biggest revelations from the Houston Chronicle’s in-depth Astroworld investigation

This story will be with us for a long time.

How’s that city push to get its employees vaccinated going?

Not bad, actually.

Nearly three months after Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order requiring Houston’s 21,000 city employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, receive a medical or religious exemption, or submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks, compliance with the order varies widely among departments.

Just over 60% of Houston firefighters had either been vaccinated, submitted test results or received an exemption as of Nov. 15 — the lowest rate of any city department.

That’s according to city data released to Houston Public Media, which also revealed Houston police, waste management and health staff at the bottom of the list of those who have complied with Turner’s order.

Just 74% of police officers were in compliance with the mandate, along with 74% of Solid Waste Management employees and 74% of Health and Human Services employees.

The city secretary’s office, which has just seven employees, is 100% compliant with the mayor’s order. The legal department with 185 employees and the city I.T. department’s 180 are next on the list with about 98% compliance each as of Nov. 15.

The mayor’s own office is 90% compliant with his executive order as of Nov. 15, 13th on the list of 25 departments.

[…]

The city’s Nov. 15 compliance data was the most recent available. Houston Public Media has requested a more recent report, which was not available as of Thursday afternoon.

On Sept. 8, the date Turner issued his order, 342 city employees had active cases of COVID-19, including 129 police officers.

Fourteen city employees have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the mayor’s office.

Turner had previously mandated face coverings for all city employees in August, after Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local governments from such mandates. Abbott then banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates statewide on Oct. 11, preventing any employer from requiring vaccination. That order is still making its way through state courts, but his mandate ban could nonetheless stymie the mayor’s efforts.

But Turner’s executive order doesn’t require workers to get vaccinated. Instead, it offers unvaccinated employees two alternatives: Either submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks or file a medical or religious exemption.

Under the order, employees were required to submit test results on the first and 15th of each month, beginning on Oct. 15. Employees who don’t comply could be subject to “corrective action up to and including indefinite suspension or termination,” the order states.

“A failure to adhere to the policy will result in disciplinary action and could even cost you your job,” Turner told city council at a meeting where he announced the order.

In a statement Thursday, the mayor’s office didn’t specify how Turner plans to address employees who aren’t complying with the order, but said the city’s Human Resources department is continuing to educate employees on the requirements.

“By implementing the executive order, our goal is save more lives, prevent illness throughout city departments and reduce costs for everyone,” the mayor’s office wrote. “The City intends to enforce the Executive Order and follow the steps outlined to ensure compliance.”

See here for the background. There’s a table in the story showing compliance rates for each department, though it should be noted that the actual numbers may be higher for at least some of them. The president of the Houston Police Officers Union was quoted saying their numbers are better than what was represented, for one. Even without that, the city’s efforts have nudged the vax numbers upward, which is exactly what you want. I thought at the time that Abbott and Paxton would not stand for this workaround on the city’s part, and I’m delighted to be proven wrong. Now let’s see what enforcement there is for the holdouts. No excuses at this point, get on board or say goodbye.

No independent investigation of the AstroWorld tragedy

Not sure how I feel about this yet.

Harris County will not launch an independent investigation into the Astroworld festival disaster after commissioners declined to support a plan by County Judge Lina Hidalgo to do so.

Instead, the group on Tuesday voted unanimously to conduct an internal review, at the request of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I proposed a more thorough and detailed scope to increase the likelihood of objectivity and an impactful outcome,” Hidalgo said. “While this scales back my proposal, I am happy to see the court move as a unit on some next steps.”

Garcia, a former Houston Police Department officer, made a motion to support that agency’s investigation. The motion also directed the county administrator, Harris County Sports Authority and Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation to examine safety regulations for outdoor concerts.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces in this particular event, so my motion is intended to help us move forward in the spirit of making sure that we are coordinating and collaborating, but at the same time looking forward,” Garcia said.

He expressed concern that authorizing a new investigation would expose the county to lawsuits.

[…]

Hidalgo, as a member of the three-member Democratic majority, rarely loses votes on Commissioners Court. She was unable, however, to convince any of her colleagues behind closed doors to support her plan for an independent investigation of the festival, which she said would not interfere with the Houston Police Department’s probe.

Hidalgo said she hopes the review would suggest actions the county can take to make concerts safer.

I hope so, too. I liked the idea of an independent investigation, though there had been no discussion of what that might look like and what powers the investigator would have. Campos thinks it’s a mistake for the county to not pursue this, while Erica Greider has mixed feelings. The county’s review will not overlap with the HPD criminal probe, so maybe it will turn up some useful information. Like I said, I hope this is worthwhile.

UPDATE: Stace also thinks Commissioners Court should have approved the independent investigation.

Some more AstroWorld stuff

Firefighter logs from the event tell the story of early chaos and continued problems.

Houston firefighters arrived at a small command post parked on the far-flung Orange Lot, about a mile from the festival grounds. They spent the day listening to radio dispatches from some of the hundreds of Houston police officers inside and outside the park, or using cellphones to call the concert organizers’ privately hired medical providers. They added notable updates to the 11-page log.

After the early breach of the entry, firefighters wrote just after 10 a.m.: “Venue fences damaged. No control of participants.”

In the initial rush on the gates, four concertgoers were injured, the logs show. Revved-up concertgoers would rush gates at least nine other times Friday, fire officials wrote.

At about 11 a.m. Friday, firefighters noted that a crowd of about 100 people were headed toward the Fiesta. Eighteen minutes later, they noted another 200 people approaching the park’s Gate 10.

“Participants are now dismantling barricades,” firefighters wrote.

[…]

Shortly after 5 p.m., the place was already about two-thirds full, according to the logs. The number of concert crashers appears to have grown significantly as well, with one entry showing that officials estimated as many as 5,000 people had not been scanned entering the park.

Police continued to respond to calls of people pushing down fencing at 5:50 p.m. and an hour later. They reported a “mob” at Main Street at 7:15 p.m., and a crowd of some 250 people rushing a pedestrian bridge nine minutes later.

Half an hour later, police had another 13 people in custody.

At 8 p.m., they reported a Houston police officer suffering from a hand injury;

By 9 p.m. — about the time that Travis Scott began performing — the crowd at NRG park had grown to 55,000, according to the logs.

As the concert progressed, hundreds of festivalgoers continued to pour over fencing.

But if the security breaches were the first signs of trouble, the most significant signs of danger began to appear shortly after 9:15 p.m.

“Individual with crush injury, breathing difficulty,” firefighters noted, at 9:18 p.m. “(ParaDocs) en route.”

“This is when it all got real,” they wrote, at 9:28 p.m.

There’s more if you want to keep reading. I suspect we’re going to learn a lot from these logs, and from what the firefighters who wrote them have to say about it now.

Another source of information about this disaster will be all the litigation.

Attorneys representing more than 200 people claiming they were injured in last week’s Astroworld Festival stampede in Houston said on Friday that they are filing another 90 lawsuits against the promoters of the event in which at least nine people died.

The announcement marked the latest legal action to follow last Friday’s concert by Grammy Award-nominated rapper Travis Scott before a crowd of 50,000 at NRG Stadium that got out of control when fans surged toward the stage.

“We represent more than 200 victims who were injured mentally, physically and psychologically at the Astroworld Festival,” civil rights Attorney Ben Crump announced at a news conference in Houston.

At least 50 other suits have been brought against producer Live Nation Entertainment Inc and Scott over the deaths and injuries related to the Astroworld Festival that was intended to signal the resurgence of Scott’s hometown.

A ninth person succumbed to her injuries on Wednesday, raising the death toll to nine. It occurs to me that the families of the deceased have not yet filed any lawsuits. I have to imagine those will come later. We will be re-living this experience for a long time.

And in the end, I hope we learn from this terrible experience.

The Danish city of Roskilde shares little with Houston other than a proximity to a waterway and a music festival tragedy in which nine people died.

The Roskilde Festival, which typically draws more than twice as many music fans as the town’s population of around 50,000, made only celebratory news until its 30th year, when nine fans were crushed in a mosh pit during a Pearl Jam performance there on June 30, 2000.

One year later, the festival returned with Bob Dylan headlining.

Carlos Chirinos, a music and global health professor at New York University, studies music-related crowds and behaviors. He worked with Roskilde Festival organizers in 2005.

“I was impressed with how they stepped up security in the pit,” he said. “I had an opportunity to be close with security and saw how closely they worked with stage management. They tried to achieve total control.

“And they haven’t had any incidents since then.”

[…]

In the meantime, experts say large-scale changes to how the music industry conducts its events are unlikely to take place. Those advocating for the end of general-admission music festivals with tens of thousands of concert-goers may get a short-term reprieve: the festival season largely hibernates for the winter.

But by next spring and summer, music festivals will likely return in full fervor.

“It’s not cynical, but just an observation, that some of the most heartbreaking tragedies at mass gatherings in the United States have not yielded a lot of change,” said Steve Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance. The non-profit organization was formed following a 2011 concert event that was to feature the band Sugarland at the Indiana State Fair. Severe winds knocked down supports for a temporary roof, killing seven fans and injuring dozens of others.

“What are the likely long-term changes after the tragedy at Astroworld? You can find people asking if it will be the end of GA shows, and commenters saying that will happen. I don’t think that’s likely at all,” Adelman said. “If for no other reason than the economic model for the music industry has changed. No one is selling records. So the industry sells live music, food, beverages and merchandise. That’s just the model. It’s economics.”

Of course, those that organize and promote these events have to be able to get insurance for them. The lawsuits may make that more difficult for them, or at least force them to make some changes. But yeah, it’s probably best not to bet on anything truly game-changing. Attend at your own risk, hopefully with the knowledge of what can go wrong.

The safety protocols

We won’t know for some time what exactly went wrong at AstroWorld, but we do know what should have been in place to keep the concertgoers safe.

When tens of thousands of people are packed into a confined area like NRG Park, crowd surges of some form are to be expected, security industry experts say, and certain precautions should be implemented.

“It’s very natural when the lights go down or somebody takes the stage, the entire crowd takes a step forward. It’s just natural, you move toward the point of interest. … And depending on the density of the crowd, that can become extremely dangerous,” said Tamara Herold, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Herold researches crowd management and works with security firms and sports leagues around the world to ensure public safety at large-scale events.

While Herold couldn’t comment on the security at the Astroworld Festival, citing a lack of publicly released information, she said there are general steps organizers can take to mitigate risk at such festivals.

[…]

High-density events such as Astroworld carry with them inherent dangers, which have played out to tragic ends at concerts and sporting events throughout modern history. More specifically, Herold’s research has found that there is a much higher likelihood of violence and injury at events with general admission seating, the standard at festivals such as Astroworld.

One way to mitigate that risk is to separate the crowd into more manageable sections, Herold said. Videos posted to social media do appear to show the area in front of the stage separated into four sections.

If a crowd surge turns dangerous, the next best bet is to notify the performer, have them pause the show and encourage the crowd to settle down, according to Herold.

“If you allow the concert to continue, the pressure will continue to build, people will begin to panic and then they behave in ways that create even more pressure in the crowd as they try to escape, and it creates a very desperate situation,” Herold said.

See here and here for some background. Professor Herold is speaking in general terms, and what she says makes a lot of sense. This particular event should have had its own safety protocols, and there are questions about whether they were followed.

Astroworld had a plan for all sorts of emergencies. It designated who could stop a performance and how. It included a script for how to announce an evacuation. It detailed how to handle a mass casualty event.

Whether promoters followed it Friday evening, when eight concertgoers died and scores were injured during Travis Scott’s headlining performance, is unclear.

The Houston Chronicle obtained the 56-page “event operations plan,” which the festival promoter developed to ensure the safety of 50,000 guests at the sold-out event at NRG Park.

“Astroworld, as an organization, will be prepared to evaluate and respond appropriately to emergency situations, so as to prevent or minimize injury or illness to guests, event personnel and the general public,” the document states.

Attendees described an entirely different scene: an overwhelmed venue where security personnel were unable to prevent fans from being crushed. Where medics were too few. And where production staff were unwilling to halt the show despite pleas from fans that others had collapsed.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said a review of the plan — and whether it was properly followed — should be part of an objective, third-party investigation of the tragedy.

“What I know so far is that Live Nation and Astroworld put together plans for this event,” Hidalgo said Saturday. “A security plan, a site plan. That they were at the table with the city of Houston and Harris County. And so perhaps the plans were inadequate. Perhaps the plans were good, but they weren’t followed. Perhaps it was something else entirely.”

Litigation will provide a window into that, but that’s a slow process. Judge Hidalgo is right, we need a thorough investigation; I’m not sure what a third-party investigation would look like, but as long as everyone has sufficient faith in whoever is leading it, that’s fine by me. The goal should be to come to some answers, even just preliminary ones, in a short time frame. We all need to know how and why this happened. Ken Hoffman and Texas Public Radio have more.