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Newtown Families Call for Tough Gun Laws; Japan Preps Defenses; CEO Ron Johnson Fired; Wants Concussion Suit Tossed Out; Rutgers Faculty Want Pres. to Leave

Aired April 9, 2013 - 09:00   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now in the NEWSROOM, escape to Cuba -- a Florida father characterized as anti-government accused of kidnapping his two children and fleeing to the communist nation.

Also, Newtown comes to Washington.


NICOLE HOCKLEY, PARENT OF SANDY HOOK VICTIM: I stand before you now and ask you to stand with me, with also families.


COSTELLO: Gun control front and center at the Capitol this morning.

Plus, it's called the "Accidental Racist."


COSTELLO: Brad Paisley's new song with LL Cool J out today. Confederate flags, southern pride and lots of controversy.


COSTELLO: And spring snowstorm, a massive system stretching from Colorado to Illinois. Snow, sleet, even tornadoes. We're live in Colorado, and you're live in the CNN NEWSROOM.


COSTELLO: Good morning. I'm Carol Costello, thank you so much for being with me. We begin with what could be an emotional crecscendo in the nation's debate over gun control. Beginning today, these people will knock on lawmakers' doors on Capitol Hill and share their heartbreak. Each lost a loved one at Sandy Hook Elementary, and they'll call on senators who have not committed to tougher gun laws.

We begin our coverage with White House correspondent Brianna Keilar.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If he can't convince Congress to take up gun legislation, perhaps they can. President Obama brought 12 family members of the Newtown victims back to Washington with him, personally ushering them off Air Force One. Among them --

NICOLE HOCKLEY, PARENT OF SANDY HOOK VICTIM: The president of the United States --

KEILAR: Nicole Hockley who lost her 6-year-old son, Dylan, at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

HOCKLEY: Though sometimes the waves of sadness are so great they threaten to drown me, I stand before you now and ask you to stand with me with all the families. KEILAR: Hockley had earlier introduced the president as he began a week-long White House push for a gun bill. Obama criticized Republican senators for trying to block a measure from coming to the Senate floor.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: In the wake of a tragedy, you think this would not be a heavy lift. And, yet, some folks back in Washington are already floating the idea that they may use political stunts to prevent votes on any of these reforms.

KEILAR: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is now planning to join the 13 senators who say they will filibuster a bill. Democrats are hoping to overcome the filibuster with a bipartisan compromise that would require background checks for all or almost all gun purchases. The measure has overwhelming public support, but is in jeopardy in the Senate.

OBAMA: We have to tell Congress it's time to require a background check for anyone who wants to buy a gun so that people who are dangerous to themselves and others cannot get their hands on a gun. Let's make that happen.


KEILAR (on-camera): That really was just the beginning of a full- court press here at the White House, Carol. Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder will take part in an event here at the White House today focusing on law enforcement, and tomorrow First Lady Michelle Obama will head to Chicago where they will talk about kids needing opportunities, including safety from gun violence, Carol.

COSTELLO: Let's talk about that filibuster threat. You said 14 Republicans have now signed on. They don't want any kind of debate over any gun bill on the floor of the Senate. A Republican Congressman, Peter King was on "EARLY START" this morning. I want you to listen to what he said about that filibuster idea.


REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: I believe we should have universal background checks. But even if I did not support that legislation, I would say let this come to a debate. This is an issue that's grabbed hold of the American people. It's an issue I think has to be resolved. And even if it doesn't go down the way I want it to, I think the American people are entitled to a debate and, to me, to use Senate rules to block a debate on an issue of this important is just wrong.


COSTELLO: OK, so Peter King isn't the only Republican senator -- John McCain came out and said yes, the people deserve a debate on the floor. Rudy Giuliani on "PIERS MORGAN" last night said, yes, the people deserve a debate on the floor. So what is this? What's driving the division among Republican lawmakers?

KEILAR: Well, you're seeing, Carol, Republicans who have different pressures. They're experiencing different pressures. On one hand, you have, for instance, Rand Paul of Kentucky, who's leading this effort to have a filibuster, and then on the other, you do have, yes John McCain, Peter King and, of course, they there are also Republicans who feel that way but maybe aren't saying it, that there shouldn't be a filibuster.

Some of these Republicans, their biggest concern may be a primary from the right. You know, Rand Paul, for instance, could be concerned about that, even Mitch McConnell. If they come out and say that they're going to allow something -- a gun bill to move forward, they could face a challenge from the right that could be successful.

So on the other hand, you have people like John McCain, who even if ultimately some of the folks aren't going to want to vote for a gun bill, it doesn't sit well with their constituents that it wouldn't even be allowed to come up, so they're trying to take a more measured approach. And Democrats are hoping they can enlist the help of people like Senator McCain to overcome that need 60-vote threshold to discuss this issue.

COSTELLO: That's just crazy. Crazy, crazy politics. Brianna Keilar reporting live from the White House this morning.

A group fighting for stricter gun laws is stealing a page from the playbook of its rival, the NRA. Mayors Against Illegal Guns says it too will use a scorecard system to grade lawmakers on gun issues. Once again, the face of the campaign will be the parents who lost children at Sandy Hook.


NEIL HESLIN, FATHER OF SANDY HOOK VICTIM: I got a 911 call that there was a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.


COSTELLO: The nonprofit group is backed by the deep pockets of the New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg. It will spend $1 million to air this new ad. The campaign specifically targets about a dozen lawmakers and asks their constituents to contact them, demanding action.

We're committed to staying on the story all day today, all day tomorrow. CNN going is going in depth and exploring the issue of background checks; that' called "GUNS UNDER FIRE: A CNN SPECIAL REPORT." We'll debut new polling, explore the politics of background checks, and follow the money trail from both sides of the issue. That's all day tomorrow on CNN.

Two little boys abducted from their grandmother's home in Florida last week are believed to be in Cuba, in Cuba, with their parents. A Florida sheriff's department, actually a Florida sheriff's deputy, says it's received information the family fled the United States possibly using a sailboat. Joshua and Sharon Hokken, who are from Louisiana, lost custody of their boys last year and their parental rights terminated a week ago. A State Department official tells CNN that U.S. officials in Cuba are aware of the situation. We'll keep you posted.

Also this morning, fears of military action rumbling across the Korean Peninsula and beyond. Japan now bracing for the possibility of a North Korean missile test by setting up Patriot missile batteries in and around Tokyo. South Korea has predicted a launch could come as soon as tomorrow. In the meantime, North Korea is warning visitors in South Korea to take action just in case war breaks out.

Here's more for you from CNN's Kyung Lah.


KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Another threat from Pyongyang, but this time it wasn't aimed just at South Koreans. North Korean state TV warning foreign institutions, companies, and tourists that, for their own safety, take shelter and evacuate Seoul and the rest of South Korea, warning the Korean Peninsula may be headed toward thermonuclear war.

VICKY POLASHOCK, AMERICAN VISITOR: I am concerned -- not enough not to make the trip.

LAH: Atlanta visitor Vicky Polashock is in Seoul for business. She's not rattled, though Kim Jong-Un's threats did get her to register with the U.S. embassy. This latest warning?

POLASHOCK: Well, that particular threat doesn't heighten the sense of danger I feel any more than everything that's just been occurring for the past couple of weeks.

LAH: It has been a long couple of weeks coming to a head now. South Korea's capital bracing itself to see if the unpredictable leader in the North would carry out the threat of a missile launch.

LAH: It's hard not to be worried, she says, but I doubt they'll attack. South Koreans are numb to the onslaught of threats, but they're also well practiced in living with them.

Monthly civil defense drills, where people in Seoul practice citywide emergency evacuations.

(on camera): Seoul is the city of 11 million people one hour from the DMZ. What all of the people know is, if there is some sort of attack, they know to head underground.

(voice-over): Shelter, or the subways, which double as underground bunkers. Seoul is a maze of underground concrete halls, but most residents don't believe they'll ever have to use them.

Why South African native Wayne Schutte isn't worried.

WAYNE SCHUTTE, SOUTH AFRICAN VISITOR: They just struck (ph) the soldiers and smile. And it's like normal to them, it's like crying wolf.

LAH: Hoping the talk, even as loud as it gets, stays just that, talk.

Kyung Lah, CNN, Seoul.


COSTELLO: Other top stories for you this Tuesday morning at nine minutes past the hour. Parts of the West are bracing for more intense weather today. That's incredible. Here you see some of the hail that's already rained down on Kansas. You can hear the hail as it hits the ground. In Colorado, storm chasers captured what appeared to be a possible tornado touching down last night. And right now, snow is falling, parts of the state could see blizzardlike conditions, and before the day is done, Denver could see up to a foot of snow. Schools closed and more than 460 flights have been canceled.

Recording stars Beyonce and Jay-Z are back from the Caribbean, but they're still taking heat over their trip to Cuba. The communist nation remains off-limits for Americans only looking for a tropical vacation there. Two Republican lawmakers from South Florida say the legality of their trip is murky at best, and completely wrong from an ethical point of view.


REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R), FLORIDA: I wish they would have a little more common sense and understanding and solidarity with the suffering of the Cuban people. And they ate at great places and stayed at beautiful hotels, none of which the Cuban people are allowed to eat or stay were they able to afford it, if they can't. So I don't think it sends the right message to the suffering Cuban people. They want freedom and Beyonce and Jay-Z are there to have a good time. They should go somewhere else.


COSTELLO: Reuters cites an unidentified source as saying the U.S. Treasury Department says the couple's trip did not violate the U.S. trade embargo and was fully approved as a cultural visit.

Ron Johnson, he's out at J.C. Penney after just 15 months on the job as CEO. Former exec at Apple and Target, Johnson was hired to revitalize J.C. Penney's 1,100 department stores. He got rid of sales and coupons, opened specialty shops inside the stores; still, sales last year fell 28 percent.

Christine Romans has more for you.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Ron Johnson, the now ex-CEO of J.C. Penney, learned the hard way -- turn off loyal customers and they'll turn their back on you. That's what happened at one of America's storied retailers when it brought Ron Johnson in from Apple to resurrect the company 15 months ago.

Johnson was credited with helping to create the formulas for hyper- successful Apple retail stores and Target. But selling iPads is very different from selling curtain sets and sweat suits.

RON JOHNSON, FORMER CEO, J.C. PENNEY: I told you, transformations are unpredictable and can be bumpy and this one has been.

ROMANS: In a risky series of moves, Johnson eliminated discounts and coupons, hallmarks of the J.C. Penney experience that built customer loyalty over the past 111 years. Sales fell 28 percent in 2012, including a 40 percent drop over the holidays. The stock followed, dropping 55 percent in the past year, cutting the retailer's value in half. Johnson's pay was slashed by 97 percent, but that was from the original $58 million salary and stock package that lured him to J.C. Penney in 2011.

At a recent investor meeting, Johnson owned up to his miscues.

JOHNSON: As much as we accomplished last year, we also made some big mistakes, and I take personal responsibility for these.

ROMANS: Johnson cut 13 percent of J.C. Penney's workforce to shore up profits, but the drumbeat for his outster got louder by the day. His strategy of marketing J.C. Penney as a lifestyle brand instead of a discount brand fell flat. His move to try to open stores within a store never caught fire, and pitted Johnson and J.C. Penney in a bitter legal battle against Macy's over Martha Stewart's signature lifestyle line.

Johnson pleaded for patience, but the board couldn't wait, and replaced Johnson with Mike Ullman, the man who ran the company from 2004 to 2011.

The question now -- can J.C. Penney get its customers back?


ROMANS (on-camera): Carol, it's just a stunning leadership flameout. Really, when people who study this say, you're going to have business classes -- kids getting their MBAs for years from now will be studying this as an example of how not to lose your customers. He tried to redefine J.C. Penney and in doing so lost really what was the essence of J.C. Penney.

The question now is can the former CEO, Carol, can he turn it around and try to lure those customers back and build in the spring and the holiday season. It has just been staggering what has happened there.

COSTELLO: You're not kidding. I'm still getting over that $58 million thing. Christine Romans, thanks so much. The first courtroom showdown to get underway in Philadelphia in a concussion lawsuit against the National Football League. Today, NFL lawyers will ask a judge to toss the suit that blames the league for concealing long-term dangers of concussions. Among the 4,000 people suing are families of former Chicago Bears' safety, Dave Duerson, and former linebacker, Junior Seau. Both took their own lives and their brains showed signs of damage linked to concussions.

CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin is following this. She's in Philadelphia this morning. Good morning.

SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Good morning, Carol, and I am right in front of the courthouse. I've got to tell you, this is going to be quite a showdown. There is a long line at the courthouse this morning. They started lining up at least half an hour ago. The hearing isn't until 10:00.

And what's at issue here is not necessarily the facts which makes it so fascinating. It's whether these lawsuits will even continue. Of course, the NFL is saying, listen, this is not the right place to litigate this case, because everyone, all of these players were part of CBA, a collective bargaining agreement. So, this is a case should be arbitrated. Whereas, the players are saying, uh-uh, this is a case of fraud because the NFL knew -- knew -- about the risk associated with concussions and hid it.

So, a fraud case, the proper place right here in federal court. So, that really is what is at issue in front of senior judge, Senior Judge Brody. What is also fascinating is that the big guns, Carol, are out today. Paul Clements, who I know are you familiar with, because he argued that DOMA case about a month ago in front of the Supreme Court.

Well, he is arguing on behalf of the NFL and then you also have David Fredericks (ph), who is representing the players, someone who has argued many cases in front of the Supreme Court.

So, you basically have you a Supreme Court showdown with big guns right here in federal court. It's going to be just an amazing day for the legal geeks like myself.

COSTELLO: I was going to say, I'm sure you're going to have an update for us. Thanks so much, Sunny.

Just ahead on the NEWSROOM: It's not a happy time at Rutgers University. Now the scandal that consumed the basketball team is sitting at the feet of the school's president. Many say he should be fired.


COSTELLO: Rutgers University is in the middle of quite the middle of controversy. Men's basketball coach Mike Rice was suspended and later fired after this video surfaced of Rice physically and verbally abusing his players during practice.

New Governor Chris Christie, he did not mince words about Rice. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: What parents would let this animal back into their living room to try to recruit their son after this video?


COSTELLO: But Governor Christie stopped there. He did not berate the Rutgers president for not firing Rice immediately. Governor Christie stood by the president, despite the fact that a number of Rutgers professors want Robert Barchi to resign.

Barchi defends himself.


ROBERT BARCHI, PRESIDENT, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY: It was not recommended to me, and I didn't overrule anyone regarding dismissal. It may have been internal discussion with the legal people that were present, or whatever. But it certainly wasn't recommended to me, and I didn't -- I didn't reverse or push back on any decision like that. And I will say that absolutely categorically, and I have to tell you that I'm not covering up for anybody.


COSTELLO: But that is not good enough for Beryl Satter, a history professor at Rutgers.


COSTELLO: Beryl, did you read about the governor's news conference yesterday?

BERYL SATTER, HISTORY PROFESSOR, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY: I read about the Governor Christie news conference. So, I know what he said.

COSTELLO: Your thoughts. I mean, he has come out strongly against Coach Rice.

SATTER: Sure, that's easy. The whole country has come out strongly against Coach Rice. That's a completely noncontroversial position to take. What he didn't was come out strongly against President Barchi, who is the person responsible keeping Coach Rice in contact with our athlete students for months after his abuse of those athlete was known to President Barchi.

COSTELLO: Governor Christie said, you know, it's time to move on. The athletic director has been fired, the coach has been fired, Barchi has more important things to deal with the university, it's time to move on and put this matter behind Rutgers.

SATTER: Of course. Let's bury it is what he is saying. We don't need to examine why this abuse was allowed to continue. The reason it was allowed to continue was because President Barchi allowed it to. It was his job to say this coach must go. But he didn't.

There is a broader context here which is a -- a more institutional disdain for diversity that has permeated Rutgers University because of President Barchi, because of his values. This is why he allowed this to continue this is why the faculty at Rutgers University has been upset with President Barchi for months, since he first took office.

COSTELLO: President Barchi would say, look, I didn't see the tape until the last minute. I regret not looking at the tape. Had I looked at the tape, the coach would have been gone immediately.

But was it just an oversight on my part? Do buy that explanation?

SATTER: I don't buy that at all. It's obvious if somebody comes to you -- if your athletic director comes to you and says we've had reports of an abusive situation and we have tapes to back it up, the logical and responsible thing to do is say I need to see those tapes. President Barchi didn't do that.

But President Barchi has shown a disdain for diversity in more ways than one. He has shown a disdain for diversity, possibly more importantly than in this case in how he has allocated financial resources within Rutgers University. This is something he has been doing for months, way before the basketball scandal. This is why it's not surprising that he didn't take action when you have a situation in which our students were at risk.


COSTELLO: Beryl Satter, many thanks to her.

Still ahead, our talk back question, should Republicans allow a vote up or down on gun control? or tweet me @carolCNN.


COSTELLO: Now is your chance to talk back on one of the big stories of the day. The question for you this morning, should Republicans allow a vote up or down on gun control?

Make that 14, Mitch McConnell, the powerful Senate minority leader, just boarded the filibuster bus, along with 13 others, who had no interest in allowing any gun bill to hit the Senate floor. If it does, they'll pull a Rand Paul.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes.


COSTELLO: Paul filibustered like a champ and got what he wanted, information on drones. This time, it's a little different. Republicans, including Paul, have vowed to filibuster away any debate on guns, as in we don't want to talk about guns, period.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I don't understand it. The purpose of the United States Senate is to debate, and to vote, and to let people know where we stand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, you'd encourage Republicans not to filibuster.

MCCAIN: I would not only encourage it, I don't understand it. What are we afraid of?


COSTELLO: Former Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, Republican Peter King and the president surrounded by stunned Newtown families wondered the same thing.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know that some of these proposals inspire more debate than others, but each of them have the support of the majority of the American people. All of them are common sense. All of them deserve a vote.


COSTELLO: If you're looking for an answer from those 14 filibuster loving Republicans, they say it's simple. The Second Amendment trumps debate, compromise, even an up-or-down vote.

Talk back question for you today: should Republicans allow a vote up- or-down on gun control?,, or tweet me @carolCNN.