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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Christie Scandal; Interview With West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin; Contaminated Water in West Virginia; Who is Bridget Anne Kelly?; Suing For Being Stuck in Traffic; UNC Whistleblower Target of Death Threats?

Aired January 10, 2014 - 16:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Water, water everywhere and not a drop safe to drink.

I'm Jake Tapper. And this is THE LEAD.

The national lead. Don't drink it, don't shower in it, don't even wash a dish in it, a chemical spill potentially turning water into poison for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Are you one of them? Could you be next time?

The politics lead. She's been the subject of 1,000 thrown under the bus jokes since New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canned her yesterday in her apparent role of creating a giant traffic snarl out of political spite. But just who is Bridget Anne Kelly and when will we hear her side of the story?

And the sports lead, she blew the story on college athletes at her elite university, ones can barely read, in a bombshell report you saw right here on THE LEAD. Now she tells CNN she's getting death threats for daring to tell the truth.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD coming to you from Los Angeles this afternoon.

We will begin with the national lead. It's not just a town, it's not just a county. It's more than 16 percent of West Virginia's population who can't even go near the water coming out of their taps right now. Put yourself in the shoes of the 300,000 people who can't drink, bathe or cook with the H20 in their homes now that a potentially dangerous chemical is swimming through the water supply all because of the alleged carelessness of one company that they probably never heard of before it ruined their weekend.

This began when a giant tank at a company called Freedom Industries started leaking a chemical used in coal processing, spilling into the Elk River and contaminating a water treatment plant in Charleston, the capital city. It unleashed a persistent odor that many have described like black licorice, which is already gross enough in candy form.

President Obama has signed an emergency declaration to send in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is hauling in 75 trucks with clean bottled water. The Army Corps of Engineers is testing the water, but no word on when this may be over. Freedom Industries, the company to blame for the spill, released a statement that reads in part -- quote -- "Since the discovery of the leak, safety for residents in Kanawha and surrounding counties has been Freedom Industries' first priority. Our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination."

I want to bring in our senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen standing by live in front of West Virginia American Water Treatment plant in Charleston.

Elizabeth, what sort of health problems could this chemical potentially cause?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Jake, if you happen to touch or swallow this chemical in its pure form, it's pretty likely that you would get sick. It's harmful if swallowed and an irritant to skin and eyes.

But here's the thing, Jake, that this has obviously been diluted. This chemical went into the Elk River and then it went into the water supply. We don't know what happens when it's diluted. One would think it would be far, far less harmful.

In fact, we have had no reports from hospitals of any illnesses related to the contamination, Jake, and we have been calling them all day -- Jake.

TAPPER: So far no one has been sick and we are thankful for that. But still there are some awfully frustrating consequences. What exactly are those?

COHEN: Well, so for example, restaurants are closed down. Many hotels are closing down. The hotel I was booked to stay at is no longer in service.

And this part is even worse. Many hospitals are canceling elective surgeries because hospitals need water in order to function. Many area hospitals are saying, look, we're here for emergencies only, nothing else. And, as you can imagine, that's a real problem for people who were counting on those surgeries.

TAPPER: Elizabeth Cohen, thank you so much.

Now I want to bring in a man who is no doubt very concerned about this water, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat joining us from the Capitol.

Senator, good to see you again.

And 300,000 people in your state affected so far, many would probably like to know what exactly you are doing and what is being done by the governor and others to help those in this crisis?

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Well, Jake, I spoke to the governor this morning. He's on top of it. And they are spearheading the whole team together.

And they have a response team there that is very good. So, they're working with that. I was very pleased that the president declared an emergency early this morning. We're getting all of the FEMA, Homeland Security. I have spoken to our secretary of homeland security and also the director of FEMA and everybody has been working and doing a yeoman's job, making sure we have water, the technical service, everything humanly possible.

But it's a tremendous concern when 300,000 West Virginians, something we take for granted and is so needed and vital as life-supporting water. And it's something that we have got to get corrected as quickly as possible, then find out what caused it, who is the culprit and what type of things we can do to prevent this from happening.

TAPPER: Now, the government is launching an investigation. At this point -- and I know it's early -- but does it appear to you that this is an accident that could have been avoided?

MANCHIN: Jake, you like to think that all accidents can be avoided.

We won't know until the final investigation and talking to the DEP and finding out if they have had inspectors, and basically if this company had violations and they neglected those violations or they have covered them up. We really don't know.

I'm not going to cast guilt on anybody. The bottom line is, my main concern right now is trying to coordinate from here in Washington and making sure our state is getting all the services that is needed in order to do the job. I'm told that we have got plenty of water.

I am speaking to people on the ground, county commissioners. Everybody is doing a great job. And as West Virginians, we pull together and help each other. And I would tell you, for shut-ins, if you have a neighbor or friend or somebody that can't go to the water supply, go get it for them. Make sure that they have food and make sure they have the proper water.

It's still dangerous. I'm understanding it's not lethal, but it's very dangerous, not to use that water. It's only being used for toilets right now. So that tells you that we still have concerns. But hopefully we will get through this quick, Jake, and find out what happened. But I'm concerned, yes, very much so.

TAPPER: What is being told to the people in your state? Obviously, the FEMA is bringing in water for them to drink. What are they supposed to do about washing their dishes? What are they supposed to do about bathing and basic hygiene?

MANCHIN: Well, basically, there is supposed to be plenty of water to be able to do basic hygiene things that you need of that sort, but do it as limited and sparingly as possible, for obvious reasons, because we don't know how long.

We have been told it might be several days. We hope it's sooner than that that we restore normal order back. But with that, they are not going to remove the warnings that don't drink it, drink use it, don't bathe with it, don't wash dishes with it, don't do any of that.

So, that tells you there is a concern, but we're told, again, it's not lethal and not toxic. But it tells you that there's a great danger and hazardous, or you wouldn't be those types of warning, which I haven't seen before.

TAPPER: Astoundingly, the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, said today that it's unclear whether they had inspected Freedom Industries in the last five years, whether they even had the regulatory authority over the company. The EPA says it is looking into that.

Are you seeking answers from the EPA?

MANCHIN: Yes. Well, I spoke to the DEP, which is our Department of Environmental Protection.

And there's certain rules and regulations depending on what chemicals and what substance that people store and what they use and how you oversee that. This is going to change. You would imagine it will change how we proceed. The legislature is in session right now. And I will tell you, there will be quick action in making sure we are able to prevent this from happening again or why hasn't it. All of those questions will be answered, Jake, I really believe so, in quick form.

But right now, we have got to get this. This is a big -- we have 1,500 to 3,000 miles of water line that needs to be flushed out. That's never been done at one time that I know of before, and also the filtering systems and all this to be put back in proper working order to make sure that people have safe drinking water.

TAPPER: We're going to find out a lot more about this company and whether or not it abided by all the safety regulations it needs to.

You're a strong supporter of coal, as are most of the government officials. Despite the checkered history when it comes to safety that some of the mining companies have had, this chemical is used in processing coal. What do you expect from Freedom Industries in terms of accountability? Are they responsible for fixing this? Are they responsible entirely for paying for it?

MANCHIN: Well, Jake, whoever the culprit is, they are going to be held responsible and held accountable for their actions, I can assure you of that.

For someone to attack the coal industry, first of all, this is a chemical. Our part of that state, of the state of West Virginia, this part of the state of West Virginia is the chemical valley, if you will. We make an awful lot of chemicals that people use every day.

And some of them are much more lethal, if you will, and we have to be very careful. To say it because of coal, this could happen in anything. We have got to make sure that we are able to protect the environment every way, shape, or form. And I know that the people who have always continued to attack coal, we have the country we have today because of the coal that has been provided, a lot of it from West Virginia, that has given us the life that we have and the wars that we have won and everything that we have taken for granted.

But, with that being said, we're always trying to do it better. This chemical that is used is basically a cleansing I guess for the coal prep plants that we have. And I don't know a lot about that company. We're going to know a lot more very quickly.

And I'm sure you're going to be able to tell the whole world about it, which we want you to do. And we want to find out what went wrong. Did they intentionally do something? Was it an accident? Could it have been prevented? Was it neglect? Whatever it is, somebody is going to have to be accountable and answer for that and be held accountable for it.

TAPPER: We will do that. And we hope you come back to help us do that.

Senator Manchin, thank you so much for your time.

MANCHIN: Thank you, Jake. We will do it.

TAPPER: Coming up next on THE LEAD: a group of people now doing what every New Yorker and New Jerseyan has dreamed of, suing over being stuck in traffic. The latest fallout in the Chris Christie bridge scandal. We will talk to the people behind it.

Plus, a new warning for Americans heading to Russia for the Olympics, why the State Department is cautioning anyone traveling to this sporting event. That's ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD live from Los Angeles.

In the politics lead today, it's way longer than Stephen King's latest and should make quite the page-turner for critics of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, 907 pages of documents just released by the New Jersey State Assembly after investigators looking into the governor's bridge scandal subpoenaed them.

CNN is going over them right now, looking to see if there's even a hint that Christie knew before Wednesday about a plan that seems to have hatched in his inner circle to create a massive traffic jam on the Fort Lee side of the George Washington Bridge.

Given that just yesterday the president said he was -- quote -- "blindsided" to learn on Wednesday a top aide and an ally at the Port Authority apparently orchestrated the whole thing, allegedly out of spite for the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who refused to endorse Christie, the governor apologized profusely yesterday, fired two aides who were involved, but claimed he was just as surprised by the scandal as everyone else.

The people of New Jersey will put up with a lot of things, stinky oil refineries, MTV and Bravo making them out to be cartoon characters, but mess with their traffic, watch out. Six of them today filed the class action suit against everybody, Christie, the state of New Jersey, the Port Authority along with David Wildstein and Bill Baroni, the two former Port Authority's officials who Christie appointed.

And also named in that class action lawsuit is Bridget Anne Kelly, who, until yesterday, was Governor Chris Christie's deputy chief of staff. Ever since the e-mails incriminating her came out on Wednesday, no one has heard a peep from her. And that includes Governor Christie, who was apparently so angry and advised by legal counsel, he didn't want to hear her side of the story before she was shown the door.

I want to bring in our Erin McPike standing by live in Trenton, New Jersey.

Erin, Christie and Kelly go back before he landed in the governor's mansion.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, they do.

And she also goes way back with a lot of people here in the capital, where there's palpable sympathy for her today. There's also growing intrigue about what or who could have prompted her to direct the lane closures to the George Washington Bridge in the first place.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I have terminated the employment of Bridget Kelly.

MCPIKE (voice-over): Bridget Anne Kelly, it's the name inked throughout e-mails and text messages at the center of a September traffic jam that has ensnared New Jersey officials from the Port Authority to the governor's mansion.

At yesterday's marathon press conference, Governor Christie said Kelly had told him she had nothing to do with the closure, a lie exposed when her emails were released.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I have not had any conversation with Bridget Kelly since the email came out. She was not given the opportunity to explain to me why she lied because it was so obvious that she had.

MCPIKE: Christie laid the blame for the traffic scheme squarely on his long-time aide's shoulders, saying he felt betrayed by her.

CHRISTIE: I am heartbroken that someone who I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the last five years betrayed my trust.

MCPIKE: She took the fall, but no one has seen or heard from her, at least publicly, since her e-mail account became a national spectacle. So, just who is Bridget Anne Kelly?

The divorced mother of four worked for Chris Christie since 2010 and was appointed his deputy chief of staff in April. About five months later, she sent the career-ending message, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." The e-mail certainly seems incriminating but those who know Kelly say they doubt the dedicated staffer could have orchestrated this on her own.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think a lot of people find it hard to believe that she was acting as a rogue political operative conducting this operation regarding a bridge solely by herself.

MCPIKE (on camera): Here in New Jersey, Bridget Anne Kelly has been a staple of Republican politics for more than a decade.

(voice-over): She began as a legislative aide for Republican Assemblyman David Russo and eventually rose to become his chief of staff in 2002. She joined the Christie camp as director of legislative affairs, and again, rose through the ranks to become deputy chief of staff in just three years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was more of a liaison, one that kind of worked behind the scenes with the authorities and the legislature and a task master, somebody who got the job done but not as a political operative.

MCPIKE: The infamous September bridge closures referenced in her messages affected emergency vehicles as well as local commerce and snarled the city of Fort Lee, in what appears to be a petty way to punish Fort Lee's mayor for not supporting Governor Christie's reelection. No one has seen any sign of Kelly at the Ramsey, New Jersey home. And the governor's office scrubbed her name from the Web site this morning.

(on camera): D people feel badly for her now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think there are some. I think people are waiting to find out more information before they make any judgment about it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCPIKE: Now, Bridget Anne Kelly may very well be called upon to testify in front of a New Jersey assembly as the investigation deepens in the coming days, but there are also new questions, based on CNN reporting, about Bill Stepien, who was Chris Christie's most trusted political adviser who he also let go yesterday, about what more he could have known, Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: That's right, Erin McPike. His two-time campaign manager.

Thanks so much, Erin McPike.

As we mentioned, Bridget Kelly is named in that class-action lawsuit filed against Governor Christie, the state of New Jersey and others. The six plaintiffs are all people claiming that they were stuck in the traffic jam in Fort Lee and late for work as a result. And worse, the lawsuit claims, quote, "Each plaintiff was deprived of life, liberty, and property as a result of the defendants' action." (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Joining me now from New York are one of the plaintiffs filing the suit, Joy Galicki and her attorney Rosemarie Arnold.

Ladies, thanks so much for being here.

Joy, explain to us what happened to you in this bridge traffic and what makes you compelled to sue.

JOY GALICKI, PLAINTIFF IN N.J. CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT: You know, it was so unexpected and it came out of nowhere and it was a very frightening experience for me and I actually had a panic attack and it was extremely uncomfortable. Normally, when there's a problem -- I live in Fort Lee. And normally when there's a problem in Fort Lee, you have signage, you have communications through telephone, there's police officers on the street, there's transit authority people in the lanes.

But there was nobody. There was nothing. And it came out of nowhere and we were caught on the approach and we couldn't turn around to go back and all of the cars were trying to literally millimeters away from each other, inching their way, trying to move forward and it was a very frightening and uncomfortable experience, and you didn't know how long the time frame was going to be.

I mean, if they put up a sign and said, look, you have a two-hour wait, then you know to expect two hours. But I didn't know if I was going to be there for 15 minutes or three hours. Normally, my commute to New York City is 20 minutes door to door. I was 20 minutes standing in the same spot before I could even inch and it was extremely uncomfortable.

TAPPER: Joy, I should point out that you are a registered Republican and you have voted for Governor Christie in the past. So --

GALICKI: Yes.

TAPPER: By your own words, this is not borne from any political animus. You were supporter of his.

Rosemarie, did victims reach out to you or did you seek them?

ROSEMARIE ARNOLD, LAWYER WHO FILED TRAFFIC CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT: A hundred percent victims reached out to me and since filing the lawsuit last night, by the way, I've received hundreds of e-mails from people who fit into this class of people who were severely damaged because of this political retribution is what it is. We live now in a culture of political retribution.

And when there's an accident, people accept that. But this was done on purpose. And people reached out to me mostly yesterday because it came out that this was a purposeful act.

TAPPER: I understand what you're saying.

Joy, what exactly are you suing for? How much money?

GALICKI: This doesn't really -- is not a money thing. It's the fact that I physically got sick over this is what bothers me the most and I'm very skittish to go over the George Washington Bridge which I have to do on a daily basis.

This also happened in September, around September 11th. So your mind, you know, really does -- plays with you when you're stuck in a situation where you're trapped. And I felt trapped.

TAPPER: Joy, what did you think of Governor Chris Christie's press conference? Did you take him at his word that he did not know anything about this?

GALICKI: I really hope that he is being honorable and telling the truth.

TAPPER: Rosemarie, the suit says that Governor Christie is named as a defendant in the suit, along with the individuals we know that were responsible, at least based on the e-mails and texts like David Wildstein and Bridget Anne Kelly. But you say Governor Christie is also a defendant because he, quote, "knew or reasonably should have known that they were conspiring and orchestrating a political agenda."

What do you think, Rosemarie?

ARNOLD: Fair enough. Jake, he's admitted that. He went on TV yesterday and he apologized and he said, these are the people that I was in charge of and this was on my watch and they were stupid. I think he called them malicious. He's admitted that this was his doing and that he didn't properly supervise his administration.

TAPPER: Last word, Joy, there are skeptics out there watching who are saying, oh, God, here we go, another lawsuit based on nothing. What's your message to them?

ARNOLD: This was a disaster. There are tens and thousands of people who lost man time, who missed their air flights, who missed their doctor's appointments. There are children who were late for school. There are scores of people who were going into the city to do that day and into Fort Lee to do that day, that they were unable to do. Tens of thousands of man-hours, tens of millions of dollars worth of damages were done on this day and it was done on purpose.

TAPPER: Joy, I would like you to answer the question, too. Look at the --

GALICKI: He didn't punish -- he didn't punish just the people who didn't vote for him. He punished the people that voted for him, which I was in that class. But the fact that we had to live through the experience of what happened on the bridge, that's inexcusable.

TAPPER: All right. Rosemarie Arnold and Joy Galicki, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

ARNOLD: Thank you for having us. (END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Coming up next on THE LEAD, she exposed the dark secret of one big name school sports program that a shocking number of students and athletes can barely read. And now, she says her life is being threatened because of it.

Plus, remember the swine flu? It's back and it's killing people again. Tents have been sent up outside some hospitals to keep the sick from infecting others.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, live from Los Angeles.

The sports lead now. We all know how passionate college sports fans can be. After all, it can't be just the beer compelling them to stand in 30-degree weather, wearing nothing but body paint. But when we aired a story earlier this week about the illiteracy problem among some college athletes, we could not have imagined the overwhelming response. Not only have you been e-mailing and tweeting us about it, not only did basketball great Isiah Thomas tweet us about it and come on the show to talk about it, but the whistle blower who tipped us off says she's been getting death threats since the story aired.

A CNN analysis led by correspondent Sara Ganim found that up to 18 percent of basketball and football students in many schools struggled with basic reading skills, even before they were accepted to college. The woman who helped shed light on this, she was a professor who spent years tutoring student athletes at the University of North Carolina, and she now says going public with the truth has earned her both praise and threats.

CNN's Sara Ganim has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARY WILLINGHAM, UNCH WHISTLEBLOWER: They are significantly behind the level of reading and writing that's required.

SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Mary Willingham's explosive allegations against the University of North Carolina have made her, she says, the target of death threats from upset fans. Her claims that between 8 percent and 10 percent of the school's revenue sports athletes read below a fourth grade level have gotten a lot of reaction, good and bad, since they aired on CNN on Tuesday.

WILLINGHAM: I mean, we may as well go over to Glenwood Elementary up the street and just let all of the fourth graders in here or third graders in here.

GANIM: Willingham's story was part of a bigger of investigation into the literacy of college athletes. WILLINGHAM: Although the admission's department may disagree, 60 percent of this particular data set of athletes, if they entered our community college system here in North Carolina, they would have to take one, two, or three remedial reading classes before they could enter the two-year curriculum at a community college.

GANIM: UNC does disagree. Since our story aired, school officials have disavowed Willingham's findings. They say they don't believe she tutored athletes who couldn't read.

In a statement, the University of North Carolina said it can't comment on her research because officials, quote, "have not seen that data." University officials have asked for that data but those requests have not been met.

But Willingham shared the forwarded e-mails with CNN, and those emails show last year, she did tell them what she found, twice.

And before CNN aired the story, we got our own confirmation from UNC officials that they did hear from Willingham and her concerns about athlete tutoring. UNC also told CNN it wasn't part of her job duties to do this research.