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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Ousted IRS Chief to Testify; Seven People Missing; Airforce Lieutenant Colonel Violates Protective Order; Police Still Investigating Cause of West, Texas Explosion

Aired May 17, 2013 - 08:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: We'll ask him.

It's Friday, May 17th. I'm going to say it one more time. It's Friday!

STARTING POINT begins right now.

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ROMANS: OK. Our STARTING POINT this morning: the first of several congressional hearings on the IRS scandal is due to begin an hour from now.

The just fired acting IRS chief Steven Miller will be on the Capitol grill, facing tough questions from a House committee about the agency's targeting of conservative political groups and why he didn't come clean until lawmakers early on.

Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is live for us bright and early on Capitol Hill.

Good morning.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Christine.

Well, a second IRS official has now announced he is stepping down. But one hour from now, it is the man who was so publicly dismissed this week by a president in damage control mode, who will face frustrated lawmakers in both parties.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REP. DAVE CAMP (R), MICHIGAN: This is a witness table.

BASH (voice-over): In this room, Republican Dave Camp will chair the first congressional hearings since the IRS scandal exploded. His star witness? Steven Miller, the embattled IRS chief forced to resign on Wednesday.

(on camera): This is literally the hot seat.

CAMP: Well, I think it will be, because we have been inquiring and he and the IRS weren't forthcoming. BASH (voice-over): Miller learned one year ago, IRS agents were targeting Tea Party and other conservative groups for excessive scrutiny of tax exempt groups. But Miller never told congressional investigators, including Camp.

CAMP: So, I want to know what he knew, I want to know when he knew it, and I want to know from his standpoint, what they've done to make sure this doesn't happen again.

BASH (on camera): Do you think Steven Miller is the fall guy here?

CAMP: You know, I think this isn't going to just end up being one person's responsibility. This is an agency. There is a group of people. Decisions are made with lots of signoff. If it is incompetence, it's incompetence that really goes into a level of wrongdoing.

BASH (voice-over): This IRS inspector general report found no evidence that agent who's singled out Tea Party groups were influenced by anyone outside the IRS. Republicans are skeptical, especially the House speaker.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Somebody made a decision to do this, and I doubt it was some low-level employees in the Cincinnati field office.

BASH: For now, outrage at the IRS is a political no-brainer. So, it's mostly bipartisan.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: It's clear that the actions taken by some at the IRS must be condemned.

BASH: But some Democrats worry all this could have a chilling effect on IRS efforts to make sure groups that are blatantly political don't get tax benefits they shouldn't.

REP. TED DEUTCH (D), FLORIDA: Tax breaks for the malicious super PAC ads that poison our airwaves during the 2012 elections, that, too, I would suggest is a scandal.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Top Democrat on the committee holding this morning's hearing says so far, their investigation has been bipartisan, but he is concerned he says that it will devolve into a partisan show instead of a fact-finding mission.

And, Christine and John, some Republicans say they are worried about that too. In fact, one Republican House member investigating the IRS for years told reporters yesterday he is warning his fellow GOPers not to over play their hand.

ROMANS: All right. Dana Bash this morning in Washington -- thanks, Dana.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The search continues for seven people still missing after devastating tornadoes touched down in Texas.

The National Weather Service now says there were at least 16 twisters over a terrifying seven-hour period. The damage there so surreal, so extensive, that people in the hardest hit neighborhood are not even being allowed back to survey damage right now.

CNN's Victor Blackwell is live from the devastated town of Granbury, Texas.

Good morning, Victor.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, good morning.

You know, the people we've spoken with stress that the tangible things are replaceable. But we make really strong memories in our homes and the homes hold special places in our hearts, like imagine the first time John, you took your kids through the front door of the home. This is their front door now -- this mailbox on top of a dining room table, where this family no doubt shared meals. Something familiar as an easy chair, tossed over with particle board and bended metal.

This is just one home, and in the really hard hit neighborhood of Rancho Brazos, multiply this by more than 100.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLACKWELL (voice-over): Sheriff Roger Deeds (ph) has seen tornado damage in Hood County before, but this -- this is more than damage. This is catastrophic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have seen bad, but this is about as bad as it gets.

BLACKWELL: This is the Rancho Brazos community of Granbury, Texas. Once a mix of single storey houses and mobile homes, but 200-mile an hour winds have formed damage of a scramble of glass and metal and a simple reminders of how quickly life can change.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God!

BLACKWELL: The National Weather Service estimates more than a dozen tornadoes touched down Wednesday in North Texas. It appears that at least one stayed a while.

STEVE BERRY, HOOD COUNTY, TX, COMMISSIONER: They usually go street to street or jumps neighborhood to neighborhood. In this case, this neighborhood of about 110 homes, it seems to sit down on top of it.

I feel really an empty feeling in my stomach because the fact is this was someone's home.

BLACKWELL (on camera): When there are so many homes and cars damaged and just completely destroyed like this one, you can see that the air- conditioning unit off the foundation. The windows busted out. I mean, this house will have to be demolished.

It's easy to get lost in how large it is, but then you see something like this, just a child's drawing, red, pink and blue hearts.

Children lived in this community. They have lost their homes. Some of them maybe have lost family members. These are families that have to start over.

This is more than just pictures of devastation on television. People now have to find a way to build a new normal for their lives, for their children.

(voice-over): There is so much work to do and with optimism Sheriff Deeds believes they will rebuild.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are taking care of business, taking care of the people and we'll continue to do so.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: Patricia Lopez and Atyka Ditto saw the funnel clouds swirling just minutes before it hit their neighborhood in Granbury, Texas. They grabbed blanket and pillow and they huddled with their children, Patty's sister and a friend in a bathtub when the tornado tore the area. The twister tore the roof off their heads, but miraculously left in that bathtub unharmed.

Patricia and Atika are joining us now from Granbury.

And, first of all, I'm so sorry this happened to you, and so happy you are both here in one piece. Thanks for being here. How are you guys holding up?

Atika, I'll start with you first. How are you holding up this morning?

ATYKA DITTO, SURVIVED TEXAS TORNADOES: OK, just OK.

ROMANS: What about you, Patty?

PATRICIA LOPEZ, SURVIVED TEXAS TORNADOES: I think we're going to be OK.

ROMANS: Just see the pile of devastation behind you. And I know that this is the beginning of trying to pick up your stuff and figure out where to go from here.

Tell me a little bit about what is going through your mind in those moments when you were huddled in -- Atyka, when you're huddled in there when the storm hit? What did you see and hear? How long did it last?

DITTO: It felt like it lasted forever, but it probably lasted about four to five minutes, maybe.

ROMANS: Four to five minutes.

DITTO: We saw the funnel cloud and ran in, and we threw everyone in the bathtub, children first. And then we put pillows and blanket on top of it. We tried to get a mattress, but we couldn't get a mattress, we didn't have enough time. And then it hit immediately. The roof came in, flew off.

ROMANS: Your 6-year-old daughter was with you, Atyka?

DITTO: Yes, ma'am.

ROMANS: What did you tell her?

DITTO: I just told her to pray and to thank God for keeping his protective hands around discuss keep us safe so we could go out.

ROMANS: It must have been happening so fast. What were the children doing? You were rushing them to the tub. Trying to cover them up, obviously, you know, you're trying to help them from getting hit by things.

You know, how were the kids reacting?

LOPEZ: They were scared. They were strong, but they were scared.

DITTO: Yes.

LOPEZ: They are Christian children, so they knew the Lord would be there to protect them.

ROMANS: Wow. As a mother, trying to keep them safe when literally all hell is breaking loose outside of you.

Patty, what were you hearing and seeing as you were huddled with those children?

LOPEZ: Once we were in the shower -- in the tub, I just -- we huddled over everybody and I had my eyes closed. We were all praying.

It was just -- it was awful. It was -- the scariest feeling. I was worried about my kids. It was just an awful thing to experience. And I don't know.

ROMANS: Atyka, you were through a tornado when you were a little girl, when you were 10, is that right?

DITTO: Yes, ma'am.

ROMANS: So, did you know -- both -- did you know to go into that -- into that tub, into that bathroom, that was your safest hope there?

DITTO: Yes, ma'am. They -- they teach you that when you are little in West, Texas, that all you have to remember is what my mom did to me and my brothers when we had that tornado in West, Texas, so that's what we did. So --

ROMANS: Patty, you weren't wearing any shoes, so this storm passes, are you with the children, all there, and are you leaving and you are not wearing any shoes. Tell me what happened. LOPEZ: Once we got out of the shower, none of us had shoes on, we were trying to get through my hallway, there was debris, there was all kinds of stuff. Mainly all had nails and trying to be careful, and actually stepped on a nail.

But it was -- there was just so much around, for to us get around and out. I mean, we could see outside, but we couldn't get out. We couldn't get out of house.

ROMANS: I know a lot of people want to go home, survey the damage, one of the reasons why authorities don't want to do that too quickly, because there is so much dangerous, shredded metal, and so many dangerous things out there.

So, we're wishing you all just care and patience as we go through here.

What about your house? Do you know, Patty, about your house, what the status is?

LOPEZ: Currently, they're still not letting anybody in. I don't know -- I don't know when we're going to be able to get back in.

ROMANS: Atyka, can you tell me how is your daughter doing now?

DITTO: She is OK. I don't really think that she understands the tragedy really. I mean, when we came out of shower, the first thing out of her mouth was, you know, why do I see outside? And so, I was -- you can't explain to that really to a 6-year-old. She doesn't understand it.

Yesterday, she said a bomb went off. I mean, that's how she understood it. She said, you know, when we were in that bomb. And I said you mean a tornado? So she doesn't --

LOPEZ: She don't know.

DITTO: She doesn't understand really. I tried to explain it. She knows she was really scared, frightened and that God protected us and that she came out OK, but she doesn't understand -- like I was showing her pictures and she just -- she doesn't understand.

ROMANS: Wow. Patty, any last thoughts from you on how you will be able to move forward here? I mean, just the image of you guys in the tub with the kids, you know, praying and trying to get through it, as that raged outside of you, it must be so close in your mind as you try to move forward.

LOPEZ: Yes. I can't hear what she said.

ROMANS: What are you going to do next?

DITTO: What are you going to do next?

LOPEZ: Just -- I don't know. I just -- I don't know. We're starting over. Just glad my kids are alive. We're all together and still glad to be here.

ROMANS: So are we, ladies. Thank you so much.

Patricia Lopez, Atyka Ditto, thank you. Hug your kids. And we wish you the best as your town tries to heal.

We're back right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everyone. A sharp rise in the number reported of sexual assaults in the military points to a growing crisis. President Obama bluntly calls it "shameful, disgraceful and a danger to national security."

He met yesterday with Pentagon officials and he ordered them to take action. This comes amid a series of high-profile cases of alleged sexual abuse involving service members assigned to prevent those very crimes. Here is our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARBARA STARR, CNN REPORTER: Another embarrassment for the U.S. military, this time at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne Division.

Lieutenant Colonel Darin Haas, the officer in charge of sexual assault prevention, was removed from his job after being arrested for violating a protective order to stay away from his estranged wife.

LT. COL. DARIN HAAS: HI this is Major Darin Haas from Bagram, Afghanistan.

STARR (voice-over): He had sent greetings to his wife while serving in Afghanistan in 2010. The incident came to light just hours after President Obama met with top brass about sexual assaults in the military.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's no silver bullet to solving this problem. This is going to require a sustained effort over a long period of time.

STARR (voice-over): The Ft. Campbell firing was the third in two weeks of personnel assigned to military sexual assault prevention jobs.

At Ft. Hood, Texas, a sergeant 1st class is under criminal investigation by the Army for pandering. A Pentagon official says he may have forced someone into prostitution. Other allegations, abusive sexual contact and maltreatment of subordinates.

And last week Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski was arrested on sexual battery charges for allegedly groping a woman near the Pentagon where he worked in sexual assault prevention.

On Capitol Hill, pressure is mounting for historic changes in military law. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is introducing legislation so in sex assault cases where there may be jail time the decision to prosecute is taken away from commanders and given to military attorneys. Many feel prosecutors from outside a unit will be more vigorous.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: We believe enough is enough. It's time to change the system that has been held over since George Washington. That is simply not working today for the men and women who are serving.

STARR: And Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is warning if this problem of sex crimes in the military isn't solved, it could get to the point where parents and young people simply will not want to join the military, John, Christine.

BERMAN: Yes, a big problem, reaching this crisis level in Washington right now. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

ROMANS: OK.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS (voice-over): Ahead on STARTING POINT this Friday morning, a hatchet-wielding hitchhiker, who found Internet fame, now accused of murder. We've got the details behind this bizarre story just ahead.

BERMAN (voice-over): And then Abercrombie & Fitch CEO responds to the man who is rebranding the company by giving the company's clothes out to the poor. What he's now saying, coming up.

ROMANS (voice-over): Plus, what are the odds that you will win the more than half a billion dollar jackpot? We're going to tell you. You're watching STARTING POINT.

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(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. New developments in the investigation into that catastrophic blast at a fertilizer plant in Texas. Officials still don't know what caused the fire and the explosion that killed 15 people. They have not ruled out the possibility the fire was intentionally set.

Last week, a paramedic who responded to the scene was arrested for possession of pipe bomb components. He's pleaded not guilty. The U.S. attorney's office will not say whether he might have been connected to that blast.

BERMAN: Some disturbing new developments this morning in the story of Kai, the hatchet-wielding hitchhiker.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN (voice-over): The 24-year-old homeless man, who prefers to think of himself as home-free, he became an Internet sensation for his heroics with a hatchet earlier this year. You'll remember his profanity-laced rant about how he attacked a man who was assaulting a woman in California. It got nearly 4 million hits on the Internet.

But this morning this man is under arrest in Philadelphia, accused of murdering a 73-year-old lawyer in the victim's home in New Jersey.

THEODORE ROMANKOW, UNION COUNTY PROSECUTOR: This man was well known and that doesn't mean that he did not or could not become involved in a crime.

BERMAN (voice-over): The suspect was picked up at a bus stop in Philadelphia after cutting his hair.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael Jeffries is addressing the Internet backlash sparked by his company's refusal to stock women's XL and XXL sizes and his controversial comments from a 2006 interview.

Back then, Jeffries said, quote, "Candidly, we go after the cool kids," and that, quote, "a lot of people don't belong, and they can't belong," end quote.

Yesterday, Jeffries said those old quotes were taken out of context. In a statement, Jeffries says that Abercrombie & Fitch is, quote, "an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers. However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion."

BERMAN: Hmm.

All right. Two mega jackpots up for grabs tonight and tomorrow. So what are your odds? Not good. Really bad actually. But don't let that stop you. Tonight's Mega Millions prize is worth $190 million. Could be even more by tonight.

The Powerball jackpot for tomorrow's drawing, $550 million. That is a lot of money. That is a grand total for those of you who are math challenged like me of $740 million. Thank goodness for the prompter. Dare to dream, people. It could happen for you.

ROMANS: Or you could take $2, you could burn it and get a little bit of heat for just for a second and then you will have a payoff, too.

BERMAN: Wah, wah.

ROMANS: Ahead on STARTING POINT, our other big story we're following this morning, seven people missing this morning after tornadoes tore through a Northern Texas community.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS (voice-over): The damage is extensive. And among the destruction 61 homes built by Habitat for Humanity. The group's CEO joins us. Will they rebuild? We're going to ask him.

BERMAN (voice-over): And then the craziest story of the day. A McDonald's drive-through employee gets the surprise of her life when the thief who stole her car drives right up to her window. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. Oh, my goodness. You are watching STARTING POINT.

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(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone. An update now on the tornado recovery efforts in tornado ravaged North Texas.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN (voice-over): Six people are dead there and the search is on this morning for seven people still missing. And people who live in the hardest hit neighborhoods say it could be days, maybe even a week before they will get to see, what, if anything, is left of their homes.

Those who have seen the scope of the damage firsthand say it is surreal, it is extensive. The National Weather Service confirms at least 16 tornadoes touched down in the region. That's a lot more than we thought initially. To find out how you can help the victims of the Texas storms, visit our Impact Your World page at CNN.com/impact.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Sixty-one homes in the affected area were originally built by volunteers from Habitat for Humanity. And in the wake of Wednesday night's destruction, members of the organization are there on the ground in Texas, trying to help.

Habitat for Humanity's CEO Jonathan Reckford is with us now from our Atlanta bureau.

Thank you for being with us this morning, really appreciate it, sir.

Have you had a chance to talk to representatives on the ground in North Texas?

JONATHAN RECKFORD, CEO, HABITAT FOR HUMANITY: We have spoken with them and we are still doing the early damage assessments. Of course, John, our hearts go out to all of the families in the area who have been impacted by this terrible storm.