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Christie Faces Political Fallout; Unemployment Benefits Battle; What Happened To Kendrick Johnson?

Aired January 10, 2014 - 08:00   ET


MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: New this morning, new details on the investigation.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Your NEW DAY continues right now.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo, Kate Bolduan and Michaela Pereira.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. And welcome back to NEW DAY. Once again, it's Friday, January 10, nope 10:00 -- 8:00 in the East.

CUOMO: Soon enough.

BOLDUAN: Soon enough.

CUOMO: Ten o'clock somewhere.

BOLDUAN: Could the political payback scandal go bad from worse for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie?

Nearly 1,000 pages of internal documents are set to be released today. In the marathon news conference on Thursday, Christie admitted he was embarrassed and humiliated by the monster traffic jams apparently engineered by his own top aides. But Christie insists he knew nothing about it and now a federal lawsuit has been filed again him and those connected to the scandal.

We have the story covered as only CNN can. Let's start right now with Pamela Brown live in Trenton, New Jersey.

Hi, Pamela.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Kate. Good morning to you. This could be just the beginning as you mentioned a class action lawsuit has been filed against Chris Christie and four ever his appointees and staffers by people caught up in that traffic jam last September. They are looking for compensation for alleged wages lost.

Meantime, the FBI teaming up with the U.S. attorney's office here in New Jersey to see if any federal laws were violated.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey.

BROWN (voice-over): New Jersey Governor Chris Christie embarking on an apology tour for the so-called bridge-gate scandal.

CHRISTIE: I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.

I knew nothing about this. I had no knowledge. I had no knowledge of this. I wasn't told the truth.

BROWN: This in response to the four day long traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge last fall.

CHRISTIE: By 9:00 this morning, Bridget Kelly was fired. By 7:00 yesterday evening, Bill Stepien was asked to leave my organization. That's pretty swift action for a day's work.

BROWN: Several New Jersey residents have filed a class action lawsuit against the governor and former staffers and appointees. The suit seeks damages for being trapped on the roadways, causing them to be late for and/or miss work, being docked pay and injured as a result of the clogged local roads.

After his mea culpa news conference, Christi traveled to Fort Lee to meet face to face with the city's mayor.

MAYOR MARK SOKOLICH, FORT LEE, NJ: He was gracious. He was apologetic, we believe sincere. But, you know, it's an ongoing investigation.

BROWN: The scandal has created a firestorm of commentary.

BILL RICHARDSON (D), FORMER NEW MEXICO GOVERNOR: This has been damaging. There's potentially illegality. There's little kids in the bridge that can't get through.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER NYC MAYOR: He didn't act like a person who had knowledge before the fact. He acted like a person who got blindsided because he never would have made some of those remarks that he made.

BROWN: The damaging emails at the center of the scandal have now the former appointee David Wildstein pleading the Fifth.

DAVID WILDSTEIN, FORMER PORT AUTHORITY OFFICIAL: I assert my right to remain silent.

BROWN: Wildstein's silence leaves many questions unanswered. Were Christie staffers going rouge? Or were they executing orders from their chief?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If they are prosecuted successfully, they may well turn on the governor and say hey we're not taking this fall by ourselves. We were led to believe this is what you wanted.


BROWN: The New Jersey governor's office saying no public schedule is set for today. Meantime despite Christi's nearly two our press conference yesterday, we still have a lot to learn. We hope to have some of our questions answered when the state assembly releases 907 pages of documents this morning online, documents that they have been collecting as part of their investigation related to this case -- Chris.

CUOMO: All right. Pamela, thanks.

Led to believe versus told to do -- a very different thing in the eyes of the law. Federal prosecutors in New Jersey confirming they have opened a preliminary inquiry into Christi's political scandal. They want to determine whether any federal laws may have been violated.

CNN's Joe Johns is tracking the developments live from Washington.

Joe, anything new?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chris, the investigations are just getting started with sources telling CNN the FBI is now working with the U.S. attorney's office to determine whether any federal anti- corruption laws were broken. This appears to be a very preliminary inquiry.

But we do know the federal government has successfully prosecuted state and local officials for corruption in the past. It's our understanding any review would take a look at the way public money may have been spent in the bridge controversy and the statements that were made to justify it before and after the fact.

You have to underscore it's not clear what if any laws may have been broken. Legal experts, some legal experts have said making a federal case out of this is likely to be a stretch. Chris Christie used to be a federal prosecutor and he said he welcomes this inquiry that he has nothing to hide.

Of course, Paul Fishman, the United States attorney in New Jersey, now is an Obama appointee. He has been politically active giving over $12,000 to Democratic candidates over the last several years which, is not an extraordinarily large amount of money for a power lawyer -- Chris.

BOLDUAN: All right, Joe. I'll take it. Thank you so much.

So, those engineered lane pushers at the George Washington Bridge may have landed New Jersey governor in political hot water but did it put lives in danger as was the suggestion early on. There are claims a 91-year-old woman died because an ambulance was held up in that traffic that was created by those closures.

CNN's Alexandra Field is digging deeper on that angle of the story. She's live in Fort Lee this morning. Good morning, again, Alexandra.


There is no medical proof so to speak that's been offered that could lead to us any kind of a conclusion at this point. But, yes, the question has been asked over and over if help arrived sooner could Florence Genova's life have been saved. She's a 91-year-old Fort Lee woman who died after a heart attack.

Her daughter was asked that very question and here's what she said.


VILMA OLERI: I think she was 91, and I really believe in my heart that she was already gone when the ambulance got there.


FIELD: While Genova doesn't seem to me, well, daughter doesn't believe her life could have been saved. Fort Lee's EMS coordinator says there is evidence to prove, though, that responders were delayed in reaching here. He says there's also evidence proving that responders were delayed because of that traffic, in reaching patients on at least three other scenes.

But at this point it isn't clear whether or not those delays could have in any way compromise the care that those patients received -- Chris, Kate.

BOLDUAN: That will linger out there and more evidence and more data that will be coming out today that we will all be sifting through. Alexandra, thank you for that.

Let's bring in CNN's national correspondent John King now. He was at Chris Christie's marathon news conference.

So, John, you have covered several political scandals in your time, I would definitely say. What is your take when you're in that room for that marathon press conference? What's your take on what Chris Christie said and where things go from here?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Number one, first and foremost, he left himself zero wiggle room. He said he had nothing to do with it. He knew nothing about it. He was blindsided, he was embarrassed, he was humiliated.

If that holds up, a lot of people are giving him good grades for taking the hit and saying he was accountable and moving quickly to fire at least two people and he says he's going to scrub the senior staff. So, especially from Republicans if you call around the country, relatively high marks for what he did yesterday.

I tell you that you could tell from the second he walked in that room until he walked out nearly two hours later, he knows his personal credibility and his political brand are at risk and he's in the middle of a crisis.

BOLDUAN: And also, John, you know, at the same time, when you look -- I've been looking a lot at the Republican reaction. Yesterday nobody would talk about it, maybe for good reason. Then he comes out and there still hasn't been much reaction from Republicans.

Some Republicans including the "Wall Street Journal" editorial board are really complimenting Chris Christie now on the fact he came out, he was decisive, he was very contrite and they are making a comparison to how they say Obama, President Obama has not been facing scandals in his administration, the botched roll out of Obamacare, the IRS scandal.

Do you think that's a fair comparison when you're looking at this?

KING: Well, a number of Republicans have gone after the president saying, why do you keep saying, "I don't know"? You know, I don't -- the White House knew the website would have a disastrous roll out. Nobody apparently told the president. The NSA is monitoring the phone call of the German chancellor, nobody apparently told the president. Hillary Clinton says nobody brought her the warnings of Benghazi.

A number of Republicans said, well, this is how the Obama administration operates. Why do they keep saying "I didn't know"? So, the Democrats have turned that on Chris Christie, saying, Governor, why didn't you know? What kind of operation are you running here?

So, for him to come out and say, "I knew nothing about it but it's my fault, I'm responsible I'm the one who should be held accountable" -- it is getting pretty good grades from Republicans. Remember, there's not been a flush of praise from Republicans.

BOLDUAN: Exactly.

KING: They are not flooding out the praise him because he has been a party of one. He has sometimes taken an issue with his own party especially here in Washington and he's tried to carve out a separate brand. When you put yourself in a unique spot, well, when you're in trouble you're often alone.

CUOMO: Right. But also they have to be a little slow because he will be getting by on the exception to the rule sway big power player, who's a man who is in charge, who didn't know what was going on with his (INAUDIBLE), which is possible but not that likely.

You used the word accountability, John. I thought you did a great job in your questioning. I thought you were spot on with making the exact point I was just referencing how didn't you know the people closest to you?

I heard responsibility a lot. I didn't hear accountability. That's my question.

Going forward do you think he is forever changed by this in terms of how saleable he is as a national candidate because of and a legitimate criticism that you don't know how to pick your people?

KING: I think -- look, this will now be -- just think. Let's stop for a second and think where we were a few weeks ago in the conversation about Chris Christie. He wins this landslide re- election. Every Republican in the country wants to be with Chris Christie. Every Republican thinks he can help the party raise money. He can help all their candidates in 2014. He's the only Republican when he put the poll out of a dozen potential prospects who runs even with Hillary Clinton. He actually runs a couple of points ahead of her.

So, he's sort of, you know, the white knight. Now, what is he? He's a giant question mark in the Republican Party.

To the accountability question, Chris, look, if what he said yesterday holds up he has time to repair this damage and move on. But just in New Jersey the big thing he needed was this huge wind at his back. His state of the state address is next week.

He was counting on a big year in New Jersey as he travels the country to say look at me. Now, Democrats in New Jersey, even if this doesn't get to the governor they still think they took the wind out of his sails and his mandate is less clear and they can get in his face a little bit, fight him a little bit more. His job now as governor and as a candidate on the national stage is tougher because of this no matter where it goes.

BOLDUAN: And also, just real quick, John, I want to get your take -- how do you think this affects -- he also carries a big role for Republicans across the country in the fact that he's taking on this chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association.

He says it does not affect his job at all but is that putting other Republican governors, his big fundraising role is he putting that in question?

KING: Not yet. But let's watch -- let's circle a date on the calendar and say three months, and come back to this very question, because a lot of Republicans I talked to yesterday in Iowa, in New Hampshire, in South Carolina, in those states say is there another shoe. Are we sure there's not another shoe.

So as he tries to travel a couple of months from now is this truly behind him or do these documents that come out today, the legislative hearings to take place next week and next month, when the U.S. attorney gets involved, maybe state prosecutors -- is there something new that gives people out there hesitancy? Or is this behind him, has he handled it well?

The key test will be when he's campaigning in these tests are the candidates willing to stand by their side. Are they willing to stand there that people are going to ask tough questions of Chris Christie and then turn to the candidate, whether it's an incumbent or not and say, what do you think?

If people think he's nuclear, they won't be there. BOLDUAN: Those photo-ops can be and will be telling. John, great job yesterday as always. We'll talk to you soon.


CUOMO: And it's also a window into the larger battle between the parties right now because as you mentioned, intelligently so, the right is coming out and saying what about Obama on the IRS, what about Obama on Benghazi. The left said that's called false equivalency. One has nothing to do with the other?

What is that a reflection of? What's going on down in Washington. For example, efforts to get unemployment benefits, they are fighting over that right now to restore them for more than a million Americans.

Well, guess hat? They hit a partisan snag. A deal with close when Democrats agreed to cutback the number of weeks people are eligible but key Republican support has disappeared. This could come to a head with a vote early next week.

Let's get the latest from senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta at the White House -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Chris and Kate, it's January but it feels like Groundhog Day when it comes to this issue of extending unemployment benefits for jobless Americans. We saw this play out yesterday in the Senate. It looked like senators were getting close to reaching a compromise that would extend these benefits, all the way to November.

Earlier, this week, they were talking about a three month extension. So, that sounded progress. The talks got bogged down in partisan politics -- once again, Democrats and Republicans fighting over amendments that would have offset the cost of that extension.

And so, now, we're looking to next week to see whether or not they can broker a deal. One of the key Republicans involved in all of this, Ohio Senator Rob Portman, said, you know, don't worry just yet this thing is not dead on arrival. So, we're going to have to wait and see how that plays out.

This next week, we hear the president, yesterday, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, make the pitch for this extension so the White House will keep up the pressure. Speaking of unemployment the new jobs numbers as you know, Kate and Chris, come you want in just about 20 minutes from now.

Check out this graph. I want to put this up on screen because something interesting could happen at 8:30. The unemployment rate has not dipped below 7 percent since President Obama was elected back in November of 2008. We know right now it stands at 7 percent. Interesting to see whether or not that unemployment rate drops below that 7 percent number.

If you do see that happen, you're going to see a very happy White House. They have been keeping an eye on that number interesting to see what exactly will be said about these unemployment numbers once they come out in 20 minutes, guys.

PEREIRA: Yes, of course, we'll stay on that and bring you those numbers when we receive them here at CNN. Jim Acosta, great work. Thanks so much for that.

To our other headlines now: breaking overnight, a state of emergency in nine West Virginia counties, 200,000 people are being warned not to use their tap water because it's been contaminated by a chemical spill. President Obama has signed an emergency declaration that provides federal assistance. Residents are told not drink, cook or wash with the water.

Overseas, Afghanistan plans to release dozens of detainees, some accused of killing Americans, and could it happen as soon as today.

Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said there is not enough evidence to hold them, but the Obama administration insists that these men are dangerous criminals who could rejoin the insurgency once they're out. Ties between D.C. and Kabul are strained. They still have not reached terms for a long term security agreement.

Meanwhile, President Obama is said to be close to a final decision on changes to the NSA's surveillance program. CNN has learned he is considering issuing new transparency reports detailing how many times the NSA asked phone companies and how many individuals' records were exposed. He also wants to limit access to classified networks. These changes could be announced as early as next week.

Breaking news for you now, we have just learned that Target has announced that last year's data breach affected 70 million people. We have first told you here on CNN that 40 million credit and debit card accounts have been hacked, but an investigation right now is still under way into how the information was stolen.

The Houston Rockets strolled into practice earlier this week and noticed this giant inflatable bear next to the Coke machine. But nothing of it. Check it out, though, when they were leaving practice, the bear comes alive, freaks out Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin.


PEREIRA: And he kicks him. That seems fake. That seems fake. That seems fake.

CUOMO(voice-over): Oh, that was funny.

PEREIRA: But I love the reaction that he kicks him.




BOLDUAN: We finally did it.

CUOMO (on-camera): Oh, it was funny.


CUOMO: -- trying to kill me for months.


BOLDUAN: Remember that really funny -- it was like a high school with the Christmas tree?

PEREIRA (on-camera): Yes.


PEREIRA: I know.

BOLDUAN: Now, I'm going to question everything.


BOLDUAN: And who will be at fault?


CUOMO: Dwight Howard went to the St. Mary --



CUOMO: If that had happened to Indra Petersons, here's would have been her reaction. She would have done nothing, looked, and then find a way to like pop with it her finger nail.



CUOMO: Never show fear.



PETERSONS: Just want to add to my list, guys. All right. Yes. Well, what we're talking about right now, we have some snow out in the northeast. We even have a little bit of icing in Philly and even D.C. right now, not looking for a lot because this is going to transition very quickly. We're going to start to see some warm air move in and it all transitions over to rain. You can actually see the reason why.

Here's the high pressure that brought us all that cold air recently. That is making its way offshore. But right now, we're dealing with is again that warm front and the warm air coming in from the south. So, again, that will transition it. Cold front moves in. We're going to start talking about some rain. So, there you go. You can actually see the next system making its way in Midwest.

Today, all the way through tonight, you're looking for some of those light showers. Same system makes its way into the northeast for Saturday, and then by Sunday, quickly makes its way offshore. Just keep in mind with all the heavy snow in the northeast, this does mean a flood watch is up as all that snow can melt. The other thing we're going to be talking about, yes, as far as how much rain, one three inches into the northeast, down maybe around the Carolinas, Virginia, about two to three inches.

Southeast, one to two inches, not a big deal here, and again, the temperatures, we love this part, going up. But again, that is kind of the concern at the same time, keep in mind. But temperatures are warm. All that snow we had a week ago that's not a good situation in the northeast, but it will be melting.

PEREIRA: Are Vikings used to cold weather?

PETERSONS: Not this one.


PETERSONS: I need a little help with that, guys. But I was out there, Michaela. I didn't have a choice.



PETERSONS: Thanks for calling me out on that.


CUOMO: Coming up on NEW DAY, it's been a year, believe it or not, since Georgia teenager, Kendrick Johnson, was found dead rolled up in a high school gym mat and the time is shocking because there's still no answers. However, federal investigators say they may be able to give his parents answers now about exactly how their son died. Stay with us.


CUOMO: Welcome back to NEW DAY. It has been exactly one year since Kendrick Johnson vanished in the middle of a school day in Valdosta, Georgia. The next day, he was found dead, his body stuffed in a rolled up gym mat. The Justice Department is investigating Johnson's death, but there is new information this morning. CNN has learned the FBI has stepped up their investigation.

Now, Victor Blackwell, you know him here, one of CNN's main people, he has been reporting on this story relentlessly and there's a big reason. It's gotten national attention. Now, Victor, I'm sorry. I know it's embarrassing for you to me to say it, but the work deserves recognition, and of course, you're following up on this information, it comes from you down at the CNN Center in Atlanta. What do you have now, Victor? VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Chris, it was about this time roughly one year ago, January 10, 2013 that Jacquelyn Johnson dropped her son, Kendrick, off to start his day at school. It was the last time that she saw him alive. And since then, she's been asking the question over and over, what happened to Kendrick Johnson?

Well, this morning, we have new details about what the FBI is doing to get an answer to that question and the questions the local sheriff's office asked in their original investigation and the questions they did not.



BLACKWELL (voice-over): After months of rallies, marches, and sit-ins and the announcement of a federal investigation into the death of Kendrick Johnson --

MICHAEL MOORE, U.S. ATTORNEY: I will follow the facts wherever, wherever they lead.

BLACKWELL: CNN has learned FBI agents are now conducting interviews in South Georgia. Kendrick's parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson recently sat with investigators for nearly three hours. The Johnsons want to know what happened to their son. It's a question Jacquelyn Johnson first asked one year ago.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 911. Where is your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm calling. My son hadn't come home from school today and he still haven't got here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. What's your son's name?


BLACKWELL: That was January 10, 2013. That afternoon, the 17-year- old ran into the old gym at Lowndes High School. The following day, Kendrick Johnson was found dead upside down in a rolled gym mat. The Johnsons never believed he died accidentally after getting stuck while reaching for the shoe as Lowndes County investigators determined.

KENNETH JOHNSON, KENDRICK'S FATHER: They know something happened in that gym, and they don't want it to come out.

BLACKWELL: The Johnsons exhumed Kendrick's body and hired an independent pathologist who determined Kendrick died from blunt force trauma to the neck, not an accident. Lowndes County Lt. Stryde Jones spoke with CNN in May the day after the sheriff's office closed its case.

LT. STRYDE JONES, LOWNDES COUNTY'S SHERIFF'S OFFICE: It was not a rash decision that was left to by any means. I mean, we've drawn this out, done a thorough investigation and we think we've covered all bases. BLACKWELL: As the FBI conducts its interviews, CNN is taking an in- depth look at the accounts of the first interviews in the Kendrick Johnson case conducted by the Lowndes County sheriff's office.

JONES: We've interviewed slightly over 100 some people during this investigation, that included students, teachers, some parents that, you know, had access during the time period. A question there.

BLACKWELL: We examined every incident report included in the 522-page investigative file. According to the file, Lowndes County investigators interviewed 111 people, including seven school employees, three medical responders, and more than 90 students.

JONES: It started on January 11th when Kendrick Johnson was found at Lowndes High School.

BLACKWELL: The file reveals sheriff's investigators interviewed 18 people the day Kendrick Johnson was found. We took that information to HLN analyst, a former police officer and member of the FBI response team, Mike Brooks.

MIKE BROOKS, LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I want to interview someone that day, that night, or maybe the following day while things are still fresh in your mind.

BLACKWELL: However, the documents reveal most interviews occurred months later. Here's the breakdown. Investigators interviewed 33 people in the month of January, just four in February, one in March, and 72 of the 111 interviews were conducted in April, one more in May.

BROOKS: But months later, you know, you start to leave out possibly some crucial pieces of information, you know, because your mind, sometimes you can recall things that you might not have recalled that particular day, but to a couple of days, maybe even a week after it happened. I say week on the outside, but not months, Victor. Not months.

BLACKWELL: Remember, Kendrick's body was found January 11th. The first emergency medical technicians called to the scene initially for a reported cardiac arrest were interviewed April 17th. The paramedic who noticed bruising to Kendrick's jaw and considered the gym to be a crime scene was interviewed April 18th. The janitors who cleaned the gym where the body was yards from these blood streaks on a wall were among the last to be interviewed.

On April 26th, local investigators believe the blood is unrelated. However, they never found whose blood it was or how it got there. And according to their report, the investigators did not ask the janitors about that blood. And look again at the school surveillance video. This was the last time Kendrick Johnson was seen alive.

There were other students in the gym, but the investigators reports have no record of interviews with any of these students.

BROOKS: I looked at the crime scene investigation, evidence collection, the autopsy, the interviews that were done and were not done in a timely fashion. This is a sloppy case from the get go.

BLACKWELL: After the U.S. attorney announced the federal investigation, the attorney for the Lowndes County sheriff's office wrote to CNN in part, "While the Sheriff Prine has every confidence that his officers investigation was handled with the necessary diligence to assure that all leads were examined and exhausted, he welcomes the U.S. attorney's further review of the case."


BLACKWELL: The Johnsons and their supporters now hope the FBI will get an answer to their question. What happened to Kendrick Johnson?

JACQUELYN JOHNSON, MOTHER: That's my child and we're going to fight until it's all over, until we get the truth. That's all we've ever asked for was the truth about what happened to Kendrick Johnson.


BLACKWELL (on-camera): We understand from Mike Brooks and other former members of the FBI that the process for this investigation will likely interview those people who were interviewed and were not interviewed by Lowndes County sheriff's officers but also interviewing the investigators on the local level themselves to ask why were people interviewed so far after Kendrick Johnson's body was found and why some people were never interviewed, especially those students who were in the gym with him on January 10th -- Chris, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Questions that deserve answers. That family deserves answers, too. Thank you, Victor, for your work on this. We'll check back in with you.

We're going take a break here on NEW DAY, but coming up next, we are just moments away from the final monthly jobs report of 2013. It's expected. They're thinking it's going to be good news. We're going to break down the numbers and what they mean for you as soon as they're in.

CUOMO: Plus, American, Shez Cassim, the man beneath the hair. He is finally back home. Hear what he has to say about his nine-month ordeal in the Middle Eastern prison, remember why he was there for a joke.