Ind. Self-Policing Raises Questions on Fair Probe
Indiana's decision to essentially police itself as it investigates a fatal stage collapse at the state fair is raising questions about how objective the probe will be.
Workplace safety agencies, state police and fair officials are looking into Saturday's collapse that killed five people and injured dozens more. All are under the jurisdiction of the state, which also put on the fair. The lone outside agency brought in so far is an engineering firm hired by the Indiana State Fair Commission, raising questions about its independence.
Other states in similar positions have formed special commissions with outside experts to handle investigations, including of a bonfire collapse at Texas A&M University and the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels so far hasn't mentioned the idea, and instead has repeatedly referred to the wind gust that toppled the stage but spared other nearby structures as a freak occurrence that couldn't have been anticipated.
"The fair has an interest in protecting itself," attorney Jerry Miniard of Erlanger, Ky., who is representing an injured girl, said Thursday. "Why in the world would you let someone who may be responsible investigate themselves?"
Miniard said he is a friend of the father of 10-year-old Jade Walcott, whose skull was crushed by the falling stage. He questioned how thorough the probe will be given that it's nearly all being done in-house.
"The state of Indiana is basically investigating itself," he said.
Judy Nadler, a former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., who is a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said that could be a mistake.
"There's this sort of automatic default to say, we have people here internally who can take a look at this ... but for something so closely affiliated with the state, it would be wise to call upon someone who doesn't have any even perceived conflict of interest," Nadler said. She suggested bringing in someone from outside the state, perhaps even an outside regulator.
"I think it really is such a significant event ... it requires a level of independence to fully discern the facts and to fully convey to the public that this was a fair and thorough and impartial and nonpolitical look at what happened," she said.
State fair officials did announce this week that they had hired New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti Inc. to review the stage's design and construction, but Miniard questioned how far-ranging that probe might be since the state will determine the scope of the investigation.
"The state of Indiana is in complete control over the investigation," Miniard said. "And the state's interests are possibly different than those people who were injured or killed."
Fair spokesman Andy Klotz said the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies conducting their own investigations will all report to the fair commission. "I am quite sure that everybody is going to be satisfied with the thoroughness of this investigation," he said. "And nobody wants the answers more than us."
Attention also has centered on how fair officials reacted to worsening weather conditions, telling the audience minutes before a 60 to 70 mph wind gust brought the stage down onto the crowd that the show would likely go on - without mentioning that the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning. But it isn't clear which, if any, agency was investigating that aspect of the crisis.
"I don't know who that falls under, but absolutely, that's going to be part of it," said Klotz.
In other states and even in Indiana, officials sometimes have avoided any appearance of conflict of interest by bringing in outside investigators. After a 1999 bonfire collapse that killed 12 people at Texas A&M University, school officials appointed a five-person commission whose members had no direct ties to the university to investigate the tragedy. The University of Notre Dame conducted its own investigation into the death of a student killed last year when the hydraulic lift he was on fell over in high winds as he filmed football practice. But it hired Peter Likins, an engineer and the former president of the University of Arizona, to provide an independent review of its investigation.
Others have gone even further. After an explosion killed 29 men last year in the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, W.Va., the state's governor asked a former top federal mine regulator to investigate the accident. And Colorado's governor appointed an independent commission to investigate the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.
A spokeswoman for Daniels didn't immediately return phone calls about whether he had considered such an option.
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said there was ultimately no way to avoid outside investigations of an accident like the state fair stage collapse because there were bound to be lawsuits by victims and their families.
"In a sense, the lawsuit is the outside investigation," Stern said.
Miniard said he was sending a letter to Daniels asking him to issue an executive order securing the stage so that the victims can conduct their own investigations into the accident, though he said it was too early to gauge the likelihood of a lawsuit without a better understanding of what happened.
In other cases, he said, families have had to seek restraining orders to compel officials to preserve evidence. Miniard said he had called and written to state police, the state fire marshal and fair officials with his request and received no response.
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)