The New Orleans City Council on Wednesday voted unanimously to form a special committee that will hold hearings on the October collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel, which was under construction, as well as on the recovery and demolition efforts since then. Three construction workers were killed and several others injured after the top floors of the structure gave way.
OSHA and the Louisiana Office of the Inspector General (OIG) are investigating the collapse, and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell's investigation into corruption at the city's Department of Safety and Permits, which started before the collapse, has been expanded to include the Hard Rock project, reported The Times Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate.
Officials did not say why the Hard Rock was part of that effort, but some post-collapse lawsuits against the project's main developer, 1031 Canal Development LLC, and general contractor Citadel Builders, developer Kailas Companies, Harry Baker Smith Architects, Heaslip Engineering and All Star Electric, allege that the pile load test results submitted to the city were for a different project at a another location.
The lawsuits also contend that the project team was negligent in other ways during the construction process, which contributed to the collapse.
Another claim is that there was inadequate support for the concrete being poured on the upper floors, which is where the structure gave way, and that the concrete was not allowed to cure properly.
During a statement at the start of the Wednesday afternoon meeting, before a presentation, public comment period and vote, City Council President Helen Moreno, referring to the workers who died during the collapse, said, "It is our duty to these men and to the families of these men to ask questions, to review information, to dig deep because answers and justice is what they deserve. It is our duty to provide oversight on the path forward."
She added that the city's charter allowed the council's involvement in the case but that the new committee, consisting of all seven city council members, would not intervene or interfere in the separate, ongoing investigations.
Moreno's statements were also likely in response to a letter from Cantrell, delivered to the council a day before the meeting, In the letter, which the Cantrell posted to her official Twitter account, the mayor said the city had been transparent about the Hard Rock accident and that the publicity around hearings could delay a final demolition agreement that is in the works and unintentionally undermine OSHA's and the OIG's inquiries.
"Your decision to move forward with a Special Council Hearing, in an effort to provide a forum for the public to air its frustration with the Hard Rock Hotel Collapse, is ill-advised at this time and puts the timely demolition and the ongoing investigation of the site at-risk," Cantrell wrote. "Given these concerns, my staff will not be present at the hearing."
Moreno said during the meeting that Inspector General Derry Harper also objected to the council's plan to hold independent hearings but added that he was the only investigator to express those concerns.
Could hearings impede investigation?
"Is it possible they could interfere? Yes," said attorney Neil Brunetz, who specializes in OSHA cases at the law firm of Drew Eckl and Farnham in Atlanta. "Is it likely? No. Based on the latter from the mayor ... and OIG's office, it appears the situation is in the correct hands for investigation."
But, he added, "If they go on the site and disturb or contaminate evidence that OSHA or the Department of Safety and Permits needs later, that could be a problem."