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Culture of Deceit?; Terror in Nigeria: U.S. Send Troops; Tornadoes, Hail & Rain; Kidnapped Girl: Found 10 Years Later; Russia Signs Major Gas Deal

Aired May 22, 2014 - 04:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Is there a culture of deceit? President Obama vowing to fix health care for veterans after V.A. hospitals across the country kept patients waiting for appointments and then, apparently, covered up the extreme delays, allegedly. This morning the man at the center of the scandal heads to Capitol Hill amid new allegations. We're breaking it down, ahead.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: U.S. troops on the ground searching for hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by terrorists. We're live in Nigeria with the latest.

BERMAN: Tornadoes, hail, rain just ripping apart trees, damaging homes, and these severe storms are not dead yet. It will be a very busy morning, millions in their path. We'll explain.

ROMANS: Happy Thursday, I guess.

BERMAN: Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. Good to see you, nevertheless. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It's 31 minutes past the hour.

This morning, one of the president's top advisers is visiting the Phoenix V.A., the center of the veterans scandal and new, new disturbing allegations of delays involving delayed care for wounded veterans.

A doctor at a Phoenix V.A. tells CNN's Drew Griffin that facility is violating a national mandate and making injured veterans of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan wait for months to get appointments. The worst part, Dr. Katherine Mitchell says, is that it still was going on as recently as a few weeks ago.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: You're telling me that our troops coming back from war, now separated from active service --

DR. KATHERINE MITCHELL, PHOENIX V.A. HOSPITAL: Who should have priority for scheduling do not.

GRIFFIN: -- who are coming to the Phoenix V.A. for follow-up care for war injuries --

MITCHELL: Correct.

GRIFFIN: -- are being put on a waiting list and being made to wait six to 10 months?

MITCHELL: Yes, or longer.


ROMANS: Six to ten months or longer. Wounded in theater and waiting.

Twenty-six facilities nationwide are now being audited as part of this investigation. In Portland, Oregon, V.A. officials say tens of thousands of appointment requests took more than 14 days to fill, and the V.A. in Seattle is now facing a lawsuit from a family that says delays in scheduling surgery contributed to the cancer death of a Vietnam-era veteran.

The president called Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to the White House. He demanded answers, saying he's outraged and insisting whatever's going on at the V.A. needs to be remedied.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are going to fix whatever is wrong. And so long as I have the privilege as serving as commander-in-chief, I'm going to keep on fighting to deliver the care and the benefits and the opportunities that your families deserve, now and for decades to come. That is a commitment to which I feel the sacred duty to maintain.


ROMANS: The president also said someone will be held accountable, but he's standing behind Secretary Shinseki for now. The former general today is on Capitol Hill holding closed-door meetings.

BERMAN: This morning the United States stepping up its search for hundreds of kidnapped Nigerian girls held for more than a month now by the terror group Boko Haram. Now the Pentagon has put 80 more service members on the ground, this time in the neighboring nation of chad, set to aid in the hunt. They're going to use predator drones.

Our Vladimir Duthiers is live in Abuja with the latest. Vlad, give us a sense of what these drones can do and if there is a sense that they will help in this search.


Well, certainly, the area that the drones are meant to be searching is a very large area. In fact, it is bigger than the state of West Virginia. And up to this point, the Nigerian military has been unable more than six weeks later to find any sign of these girls. And so, this area is considered dense, it's considered very porous in terms of border security, and it's known to be a Boko Haram stronghold. So, these aerial drones flying over the area will at least give the Nigerian military and the partner nations that are engaged in the search for these girls some idea perhaps of where these girls might have been taken.

But, John, as you know, U.S. intelligence reports these girls may have been split up and trafficked into neighboring Chad, Cameroon, Niger. And so, it's going to be really challenging. The Nigerian military, they say they've got 20,000 troops deployed to the area, but here we are six weeks later, still no sign of the girls, John.

BERMAN: No, Vlad, that's the thing. The U.S. says in their announcement of the troop deployment, 80 people going to Chad, they say they will stay there as long as they are needed in this search. But really, has there been any sign of progress over the last few weeks?

DUTHIERS: Sadly, the folks that we've talked to on the ground in Chibok, in Borno State, say they haven't seen anything. And over the last week or so, John, there have been more attacks in Borno State and an attack in Jos, which is not even in the states that are under a state of emergency, but it's in plateau state in central Nigeria, sending a message, I think, whoever's done these attacks in Jos, that they can attack anywhere, any time. The Nigerian military is unable to crush this terrorist threat.

The other thing I think is important to remember for our audiences in the United States, this is the terror threat that people in Nigeria have been living under since 2009. Thousands of people have been killed over the course of these years, and Nigerian military so far not able to put it out, John.

BERMAN: All right. Vladimir Duthiers in Abuja for us this morning. Thanks so much, Vlad.

ROMANS: On Capitol Hill today, a first meeting of the House select committee looking into the Benghazi attacks, this a day after Democrats agreed to participate in the panel investigating whether the White House tried to cover up what happened at the diplomatic compound on September 11th, 2012. The U.S. ambassador and three other Americans died that day.

Among the five Democrats named to the committee is Maryland's Elijah Cummings. He says their goal is to ensure the committee doesn't turn into a partisan witch hunt.


REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: I feel that I owe it to the families of Ambassador Stevens and the other brave Americans who lost their precious lives to bring some minimal level of balance to this process and to check false claims wherever they may arise.


ROMANS: All of the Democrats served on other committees that have already investigated the attacks. The top Republican on the select committee, Representative Trey Gowdy, is pledging this work will be fair.

BERMAN: The House of Representatives is set to vote today on a major overhaul of how the NSA handles phone data. Under the bill, the agency can no longer collect that data itself. It will reside instead with the phone companies and the government would have to ask a court for permission before it can look at the call records. But civil liberty groups are upset that some provisions have been changed to give the government more leeway in creating broad search parameters.

ROMANS: All right. Time for an EARLY START on your money. European stocks and Dow futures both slightly higher. The big story, G.M. General Motors, after another recall announcement, it brings the company's grand total, 29 separate recalls for the year. G.M. has earmarked $1.7 billion to deal with the recall costs, earmarking all the money that last quarter, essentially wiping out its profit for the quarter.

The company's fine, it's paying NHTSA $35 million for its handling of the botched ignition switch recall that led to 13 deaths. Some perspective on that little fine? You know, G.M. makes $415 million or so in revenue every day. That's how much money is coming into G.M.'s coffers, so it's very small.

We are expecting more fines, however. Remember, Toyota paid in the end some $1.2 billion for its recall crisis.

So, what does this mean for rookie CEO Mary Barra?

Well, the good news for Barra, G.M. is still selling cars and is still the number one automaker in the U.S.

The weather picture this morning potentially dangerous, it is severe, it is ugly out there, and millions of you could be in the path of thunderstorms, thunderstorms that could spawn --

BERMAN: Spawn.

ROMANS: -- tornadoes. It's Berman's favorite word -- spawn tornadoes from the Plains to the East Coast. That's dangerous what you're seeing right there.

BERMAN: Very, very dangerous. And get ready for more trouble in Denver.

Look at this. A day after this happened -- that, by the way, golf ball-sized hail covering the ground -- there was baseball-size hail reported, too. So, the hail size is growing. Several inches fell in and around the city, enough to damage planes at the Denver airport. That's serious.

The storms were responsible for putting up to five tornadoes on the ground, including this one right there. You can see that picture. The winds in some areas topped 50 miles per hour, just dragging down trees. You know, pine trees like that are really, really dangerous because, like they're sails and they just fall over.

Thunderstorms, a lot of rain, too, serious flooding throughout that region.

ROMANS: In Pennsylvania, thunderstorms inundated this community northeast of Pittsburgh. Look at that, two to four inches of rain in an hour as the storms hit one after another. And near Dayton, Ohio, heavy rainfall filled streets, trapping cars, even shutting down two major interstates.

Hundreds of drivers -- look at that -- hundreds of drivers stranded for hours until crews cleared the roads of water.

BERMAN: See the hazard lights on there? That's redundant, I'd say.

ROMANS: I'd say so.

BERMAN: All right. Things could get worse today. We want to know where the storm is headed and what it will do.

Chad Myers tracking the threat this morning.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Christine and John, some of the severe weather could move your way this afternoon, into the Northeast. There is an area that will be warm very close to you in Upstate New York and in parts of Pennsylvania. That warm sector right through here is where those storms could pop up later on today.

There will be some storms across parts of Tennessee. And just like yesterday, storms into the front range. We're talking about Denver, Colorado, maybe Cheyenne, maybe Pueblo could see some of those storms.

Highs today, you'll notice a big difference up to the Northeast. The air, 84 in D.C. That's the heat that's going to try to make it all the way up to the Poconos and could cause that severe weather later on this afternoon into the Northeast, even into New York City.

The storm moves by tomorrow. The colder air comes in. Rain showers for tomorrow are still in the Plains. Heavy rain in some spots and even some -- I don't want to say drought-breaking record rainfall, but certainly some rain across parts of the Southwest that could really use it because the storm is digging down through here. That's why it's cold.

You see that green. That's 50s in the mountains west of Denver, a high of only 70 in Denver tomorrow, and a high of 75 in D.C.

Guys, back to you.

ROMANS: All right. Chad Myers, thanks for that, Chad.

BERMAN: All right, we've got a big story coming up. Fascinating, really stunning. A 15-year-old girl kidnapped a decade ago, found alive. She was held against her will for 10 years. We'll tell you how she made her way back home, right after the break.


ROMANS: A mystery solved in California. A 25-year-old woman has been found alive after ten years in captivity. Police say she was kidnapped by her mother's live-in boyfriend. Here's the suspect, 41- year-old Isidro Garcia, arrested Wednesday, booked on suspicion of kidnapping, rape, lewd acts with a minor and false imprisonment.

Police are not identifying the victim. She was just 15 when she was allegedly drugged by Garcia and taken from her mother. Neighbors who knew Garcia and the girl couldn't believe the news.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She always seems happy and he always makes for parties for her and everything.

REPORTER: How about Isidro?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, he was a really quiet man. He always say hi to everyone, but --

REPORTER: And did it appear to you that she was under duress, or --


REPORTER: Nothing to indicate that she was being kept against her will?



ROMANS: But police say Garcia forced the victim to marry him illegally in 2012 using fake names, fake documents. He fathered a child with her. We're told she was repeatedly beaten, she was kept locked in a garage to keep her from escaping. The case finally came to light when the victim found her sister on Facebook and authorities were contacted.

BERMAN: Stunning.

We're finding out more now about the bombs used in a deadly attack in the Boston marathon. Prosecutors revealing in a court filing that the pressure cooker bombs were built using Christmas lights and model car parts, and they were likely not constructed at the suspect's home. It also revealed that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote a note while wounded and hiding from police in a boat. In it, he asks Allah to make him a martyr. Lawyers for Tsarnaev are fighting to keep the note out of his upcoming trial.

ROMANS: Prosecutors say tattoo artists could hold key evidence in the Aaron Hernandez case. The NFL star faces three counts of murder in the 2013 shooting of a semi pro football player and then a separate 2012 double homicide in Boston. The tattoo artists are believed to have done work on Hernandez's right forearm.

The heavily tattooed former athlete is being held without bail and will be arraigned on the latest charges on May 28th.

BERMAN: Actor Michael Jace is due in a Los Angeles court today as he faces murder charges in the shooting death of his wife. It happened earlier this week after she and the couple's young sons returned from little league practice. Neighbors reportedly heard loud arguing moments before shots rang out and police say Jace confessed in a 911 call. Jace is probably most famous for his role on TV's "The Shield," where he played a police officer.

ROMANS: All right, facing charges this morning, 70 men and one woman in the New York area accused of sharing child porn online. Federal officials are calling this one of the largest child porn roundups ever and describe the perpetrators as ranging from a police officer to a Boy Scout leader, to a paramedic. All of the accused were accused of trading the child pornography using peer-to-peer file-sharing software. They were tracked using IP addresses, authorities now trying to identify the children in those pictures.

BERMAN: Disgraced L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling reportedly being investigated for possible tax fraud. The L.A. County assessor is investigating two properties, including sterling's childhood home. Officials claim he never informed the county that the listed owners, Sterling's mother and grandmother, had been dead for many years. It means the properties worth more than $1 million were never reassessed and being charged decades-old property tax rates.

ROMANS: The government trying to make airline fees more transparent. A proposal would require airlines to tell customers up front about additional costs, like fees for checked and carry-on bags. Right now, the Transportation Department says many of the costs are buried, making it harder on passengers. The airline industry says the proposal overreaches. The public's going to get 90 days to comment and officials say the rule could be finalized within the year.

All right, happening now, new signs that Russia may be pulling its troops away from Ukraine days before a critical election. We're live with the details.


BERMAN: Happening today in Thailand, a second day of meetings between political factions as all sides try to find some way to end months of sometimes violent protests. The country right now is under martial law, and CNN has learned that one proposal at the meetings calls for the current prime minister to step down and be replaced by a new interim government. With elections then slated for six to nine months from now. A first meeting on Wednesday is reported to have gone well but no breakthrough, apparently, were reached.

ROMANS: It appears Russia may actually be living up to its promise to pull troops away from the border with Ukraine. U.S. sources tell CNN it appears the soldiers are packing up and preparing to move days before Ukraine votes for its next president. This comes at the same time Vladimir Putin has signed a major contract with China to sell Beijing hundreds of billions of dollars worth of natural gas, that despite international sanctions. Phil Black is in Kiev this morning and joins us on the phone. Phil, does there seem to be any connection between these two events?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Christine, it is all about Ukraine. Firstly, that big natural gas deal with China. Russia has to look for new customers because its biggest customers in Western Europe now say because of Ukraine, they want to buy less Russian natural gas.

So, there's a big business imperative. Natural gas is a big part of the Russian economy, but there's also symbolic, a big political message here, that despite what the U.S. says, Russia still has friends, can still do business, that it is not isolated internationally, as the United States and Europe say that it is because of its actions in Ukraine.

Now, on the border between Russia and Ukraine, Russia now says it is pulling back its troops there, and the president, Vladimir Putin, says that's because Russia wants to create a favorable environment for Sunday's presidential election. Russia is clearly playing a softer line on Ukraine, as it has done for recent weeks. Putin says that the election on Sunday is a positive step now.

Now, the key question, though, is what happens Monday, after these elections are held? There are still pro-Russian gunmen controlling big parts of the east of the country. Can these elections be held? Will the results be recognized? And crucially, will Moscow accept that the winner of this election is the new president of Ukraine and will they work with him constructively to overcome the crisis -- Christine.

ROMANS: Phil Black on the phone for us this morning with two very big developments the Russia/Ukraine story. Thank you, Phil.

BERMAN: This morning, McDonald's shareholders are meeting as protesters gather outside. What are they angry about? The story just ahead.


ROMANS: All right, almost to the top of the hour. Let's get an EARLY START on your money.

European stocks and U.S. stock futures both slightly higher right now. And one group to watch, luxury stocks.

Now, U.S. shoppers in general are pretty much staying home, watching their pennies, right? But rich shoppers are buying like crazy. Earnings reports from Tiffany, Nordstrom, Michael Kors, they show the 1 percent, they are spending. Meantime, retailers that cater to the 99 percent, like staples, Dick's Sporting Goods, JCPenney, they're all having a harder time. Call it income inequality in the retail world.

McDonald's on lockdown today. The company shut down its headquarters ahead of its shareholder meeting this morning. Protests are expected tied to everything from the unhealthy food to low wages, 110 McDonald's protesters were arrested yesterday. Workers were calling for higher wages. The average wage for a fast-food worker is $9.09. That's less than $2 above the minimum wage and below what many are saying should be the minimum wage in America.

Even though many workers have at least some college education, fast- food CEOs make about 1,000 times that.

Silicon Valley has a new king. San Jose has ousted San Francisco as the tenth most populous city in America.


ROMANS: The Census Bureau out with new data this morning showing that U.S. cities are still growing faster than the suburbs. That's an interesting trend. Most of the growth is happening in the south and the west.

And Texas getting even bigger, seven of the 15 fastest growing cities were in the Lone Star State. Home prices following that trend. It's reported that nationwide, urban home prices are climbing at a slightly faster rate in cities than in suburbs.

BERMAN: Interesting.

ROMANS: Very, right?

BERMAN: EARLY START continues right now.