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VA Secretary Speaks to Veterans Group; First Dog to Go Base Jumping

Aired May 30, 2014 - 08:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: All right. Welcome back.

You're looking at live pictures of V.A. secretary Eric Shinseki. He is set to speak any moment right now at a Veterans event in Washington, D.C. Will he address the growing calls for his resignation? That is the big question.

We will bring that to you when he starts -- actually, let me go to Erin McPike who is standing outside this event. Erin, this is an event right now for homeless veterans, these are the types of people that Eric Shinseki has been working with for decades we should say. What is the expectation? Will he address the controversy that has been swirling around him and his agency?

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well John, we absolutely expect that he will address the controversy. Whether he'll address these calls for resignation, we don't know. Obviously that's what we're waiting to hear today.

I can tell you though that the people who are gathered downstairs waiting for him to talk weren't really talking about the resignation. They are waiting to hear what he'll say about the controversy and what he intends to do it.

BERMAN: Everything he has said so far is in the present tense -- "I continue to fight. We will continue to fight." He has given no public sign in any way that he intends to step down.

John Avlon joins us here on the set. John -- he also has a meeting with the President later today. When there is a White House which steadfastly refuses to support you, at least say we're behind it 100 percent, you know, how hard is it to keep on going?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He's got to make a case for why he's the man who can solve this problem that's occurred at least largely under his watch over the last seven years.

And the White House has just been tepid. I mean they've said he's on thin ice. The President saying he's going to have a serious conversation. I mean this is not a White House that seems to be propping up the secretary's position. So he's got to really go in and make a case that he can solve it because it certainly proliferated under his watch.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: Which makes you wonder what will tip the balance one way or the other for the President in this report that's supposed to be coming out, supposed to be delivered to the President by Eric Shinseki later today.

Let's go to the White House though, get Athena Jones -- bring up Athena Jones and get her take. Athena, you heard that -- we know that the President says he's going to have a serious conversation with Eric Shinseki. What more are you hearing from the White House?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, Kate, they're not telling us anything about when this meeting is supposed to take place or what time they expect this review to come in but it's certainly something we're going to keep asking them. And I should mention that Secretary Shinseki may have given us a little bit of a hint of what he might talk about in a few moments when he wrote an opinion piece for "USA Today" where he talked about finding the inspector-general's report -- the preliminary -- into the scandal reprehensible. The results of that report saying we're not waiting to set things straight.

He talked in that editorial about some of the steps he's already taken like putting the leadership at that clinic in Phoenix, the V.A. clinic there on leave. He's also asked for a nationwide audit of all the V.A. health care facilities. And so he may talk a little bit about what he's already doing to fix the problem, because we heard from the President last week that he expects the fixes to start even before these reviews and these reports come in. There are several that are being worked on, not just the one that Secretary Shinseki owes him today.

But one thing that we do know is that that IG report talked about systemic problems. And so as these audits get under way, we could see a lot more problems at a lot more facilities revealed. We heard Drew Griffin report earlier this morning about wait list problem at a VA clinic in Pittsburgh.

And so it looks as though the pressure is going to continue to mount. We'll have to see how Secretary Shinseki handles it and, of course, what comes out of the White House later -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Athena, stand by, stick with us a little bit longer. I mean it does make you wonder, John, if it is a forgone conclusion when you hear the hints coming from the White House -- you know what, let's take a pause.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki under fire taking the microphone to speak right now. Let's see how he addresses them.

ERIC SHINSEKI, SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: Thank you all very much. Very kind, very generous -- especially this early in the morning. Pat thanks for the kind introduction. Thanks for your leadership of the board and more importantly thanks for your years of advocacy on behalf of veterans. Let me also acknowledge John Driscoll (ph). John, thanks for having me here today and thank you as well for your leadership of the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans. Gavin Gregory and Fred Wacker from the Home Depot Foundation, Al Fareed (ph) from City Community Development -- gentlemen, my thanks to all of you for your commitment to helping end veterans homelessness in this country.

Sheriff Pete Doherty (ph)-- I want to see the badge. Fair enough. A good friend to many here in this room and my former VA colleague, he retired from VA, but he's not retired from the fight against veterans homelessness. Pete, glad to have you here today.

Laura Zeilinger, executive director of USICH and the person with whom I did pit counts for the last several years, we refer to each other as pit buddies. Other VA colleagues, especially our dedicated homeless team led by Lisa Pate (ph) and Vince King (ph). Other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

The past few weeks have been challenging for everyone at VA because we take caring for veterans so very seriously. We've done tremendous work together these past five years, and I want to acknowledge the hard work and real accomplishments of all of you here in this room. You give homeless veterans hope. You give them dignity. You give them homes and you give them real chances at a future.

That is the never-ending story here. It needs to be told, retold and told well. Since 2009, VA has proven that it can fix problems, even big ones with the support and cooperation of our public and private partners. We learn to better focus our talents and our resources.

Five years ago I don't think we -- at least I didn't really know how many veterans were homeless. There are a number of estimates, or what really caused homelessness. Since then we have settled on an annual point in time count conducted by HUD to peg our estimates. Today we better understand what factors contribute to homelessness, depression, insomnia, pain, substance use disorder, failed relationships and usually the last is a product of the first four.

We can now begin to focus specific treatments to address each of those factors. They are treatable. They are medical conditions. We are a large health care system. And then in the process create a database for substantive and predictive research so we understand what causes homelessness and what we can do to prevent it so we can end the rescue phase of getting people off streets by preventing them from ending up there.

In 2010 we established a national registry for homeless veterans to capture facts and information on individual homeless veterans.

BOLDUAN: You're hearing right now, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. He's addressing the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Why you're hearing him about the efforts to be made to help homeless veterans, only making I would say the most scant of mention of what he is currently up against, the very beginning saying the past few weeks have been challenging for the VA.

We're going to continue to monitor and wait to see how he, if he addresses the scandal facing the department any further.

Let's bring in John Avlon right now. I'm a little surprised that he didn't take it on more off the top. Yes, he's there to talk about the work to help homeless veterans for sure, but how do you not get to it first?

AVLON: Exactly right. Look, the secretary is reading off prepared remarks. This is a fundamental misreading of the moment. You're speaking to a local audience, but you're speaking to a national audience at a national moment of attention. And it's not simply sufficient to go off the typical speech you would give to a homeless veterans group. And that's effectively what the secretary is doing at least so far in his remarks.

The nation and veterans across the country are looking for a lot more. There is an urgent crisis that people are aware of, and it doesn't have a great deal to do with homeless veterans. So this is a misreading of the moment right now.

BERMAN: He said since 2009 the VA has proven it can fix problems, even big ones.

I wonder if Athena Jones is with us at the White House. Athena -- the President has a meeting with the secretary later today to talk about this internal review that the VA has done which has exposed frankly enormous problems in some hospitals around the country. Do you have a sense of what the White House wants to hear from the secretary at this point? Officials have been telling us the secretary is on thin ice. Have they given any sense of how he gets off the thin ice?

JONES: Well, that's the big question around here, John. And I have to say that that comment I thought was very interesting as well, indicating that he believes the Veterans Administration is able to solve big problems. Maybe that's a hint that he thinks he can fix this big problem that is still really unfurling.

We did hear from the President a short while ago in comments he made in an interview to ABC, that he wants to have a serious conversation with Secretary Shinseki. Shinseki believes he's up to fix this problem, then maybe that's up for discussion.

Of course, the bottom line is it's going to be up to the President to make the decision about whether to keep Secretary Shinseki. So it may not be a question of whether the secretary thinks he's able to fix this. But I do think that that's part of what the President is going to want to hear today, some sense of what the plan will be and how to go forward if Shinseki were to stay on -- John.

BOLDUAN: Let's bring in Erin McPike who is outside the building where Eric Shinseki is giving that speech right now. Erin, I've seen the speech described by his Shinseki's aides as a significant one. What more are you hearing? Should folks anticipate to hear more from the secretary about this scandal?

MCPIKE: Well Kate, what I want to point out to you now is you may remember two weeks ago today Robert Petzel, who was the undersecretary for health care at the VA resigned. And that was one day after he had that very contentious hearing on the Hill with Shinseki about the audit that was on going and what they planned to do over the next weeks and months.

And then the next day he resigned. The White House terms that Shinseki's decision. But the point there is, this is moving very rapidly. We could get news today after that White House meeting. But just keep that in mind, though he may not go into full detail here this morning, we could hear a lot more later today.

BOLDUAN: All right, Erin, thank you very much.

One quick button I want to get from you, John, as we continue to monitor the secretary's speech. I mean one thing to point out -- he's talking about homeless veterans. This is also something the President has pointed out. He has seen, Eric Shinseki, a lot of success in helping homeless veterans and lowering the number of homeless veterans that are in the country. That is a success for sure. Maybe he wants to point that out because he wants to keep his job?

AVLON: Well, and maybe it's a valedictory speech for his tenure as well. I mean it's the other way to read it. Look, General Shinseki has an enormously decorated career. He has been a really respected public servant up until this crisis of confidence.

The issue with the White House saying he's on thin ice, reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, Teddy Roosevelt, "in crossing thin ice, our safety is in our speed." There is no urgency in this speech so far towards addressing this crisis and that is a fundamental problem.

BOLDUAN: I'm hearing the similar criticism of when he was saying he was so upset. I don't remember his exact words, so upset in the hearing that he came across with a little lack of urgency as well when he was in that contentious hearing.

BERMAN: Mad as hell.

BOLDUAN: Mad as hell, that's exactly right, was what he said.

John Avlon, stick with us. We're going to be continuing to monitor the secretary's speech. We'll bring it to you if he does address the scandal once again.

Coming up though on NEW DAY, a bus driver in Oregon is being called a hero this morning after making a dramatic rescue all caught on tape. You're going to find out why it's "The Good Stuff" -- coming up.


BERMAN: Might just be the coolest video I've seen in a long, long time.

Welcome back.

We first showed you this video yesterday which by all accounts is actually real. Base jumper, Dean Potter took his dog Whisper along for a jump from the side of Eiger Mountain in Switzerland. The video has gone viral because it involves a flying dog.

BOLDUAN: With goggles on.

BERMAN: Exactly. But it does have some people worried about Whisper's safety.

So here to talk about their adventures are Dean Potter and Whisper who is believed to be the first dog to go base jumping. I would like to address all my questions to Whisper but I'm not sure that will go well.

Dean, first just tell me about the video which is hard to take your eyes off of when you're watching. What exactly were we looking at there?

DEAN POTTER, TOOK DOG BASE JUMPING: You're looking at me and Whisper on the side of the Eiger in Switzerland. It was one of many of Whisper's winged suit flights with me last summer.

BOLDUAN: I mean it's wild enough, Dean, to decide to go base jumping yourself. Where oh where did this idea come to take Whisper along with you?

POTTER: Well, I've been climbing and wing suit flying and tightrope walking for the last 27 years. And I always like to bring my dog and my best friend with me. So the idea just came from not wanting to leave my dog in the house or car. I want to bring my best friend with me everywhere.

BERMAN: Whisper does seem like an awfully great friend to have. The question that you do hear from some dog people around the world is how do you really know that Whisper likes this?

POTTER: Well, you know, Australian cattle dogs are one of the smartest breeds of dogs. If Whisper doesn't like something, she runs away. She's faster than me. If she doesn't like the vacuum cleaner mostly, she runs off. I can't catch her. Or you know, whisper has a lot of personality. She'll tremble and shake or drool or growl.

So if she doesn't want to come, we don't make her. There are things that Whisper doesn't like. She doesn't like helicopters with the doors off and she doesn't like airplanes. She sends very clear signals about things she doesn't like and clear signals about things she does like.

BERMAN: Whisper who will, you know, fly off the mountain draws the line at helicopters.

BERMAN: And vacuum cleaners. Dean, what was -- I mean I'm sure for you it's exhilarating. Can you gauge Whisper's reaction when you got on the ground? Was she growling at you?

POTTER: Oh, absolutely not. Whisper knew exactly what's going on. As you can tell, she looks around in flight, observes everything and then she is just like all excited and proud of herself and prances around, like super psyched. BOLDUAN: Super psyched it is. Dean Potter, great to meet you. Thank you so much. And Whisper, enjoy the adventures both of you.

Let's make a quick turn back over to Eric Shinseki, secretary of VA speaking right now.

SHINSEKI: That breach of integrity is irresponsible. It is indefensible and unacceptable to me. I said when this situation began weeks to months ago, that I thought the problem was limited and isolated because I believe that. I no longer believe it. It is systemic.

I was too trusting of some, and I accepted as accurate reports that I now know to have been misleading with regard to patient wait times.

I can't explain the lack of integrity amongst some of the leaders of our health care facilities. This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform. So I will not defend it because it is indefensible. I can take responsibility for it. And I do.

So given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of Veterans Affairs. I extend that apology to the people whom I care most deeply about and that's the veterans of this great country, to their families and loved ones who I have been honored to serve for over five years now as the call of a lifetime.

I also offer that apology to members of Congress who have supported me, to veterans services organizations who have been my partners for five years and to the American people. All of them deserve better from their VA. But I also know this, that leadership and integrity problems can and must be fixed and now.

So I'm just announcing that I'm taking the following actions: I've initiated the process for the removal of the senior leaders of the Phoenix VA Medical Center. We will use all authority at our disposal and force accountability among senior leaders who are found to have instigated or tolerated dishonorable or irresponsible scheduling practices at VA health care facilities. I've also directed that no VHA senior executive will receive any type of performance award for 2014 this year.

I've directed patient wait times be deleted from VHA employees' evaluation reports as a measure of their success. We are contacting each of the 1,700 veterans in Phoenix waiting for appointments to bring them the care they need and deserve. And we will continue to accelerate access care to veterans nationwide who need it, utilizing care both in and outside VA.

We'll announce the results of our nationwide audit of all VA health care facilities in the coming days. I now ask Congress to support Senator Bernie Sanders' proposed bill giving VA secretary greater authority to remove senior leaders. And I ask the support of Congress to fill existing VA leadership positions that are still vacant.

Again, this situation can be fixed with VA, VSOs, Congress and all of our stakeholders like many of you in this room working together with the best interest of veterans at heart. We can do this in the days ahead, just as we have done over the past five years on veterans homelessness. We can do this. We'll need all of your help.

God bless our veterans, those especially in greatest need of our prayers and our help and may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours. Thank you all very much.

BOLDUAN: There you hear it. The secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki making his strongest defense yet, you could say, of what happened at the VA and defending his job going forward, laying out proposals of what he's doing right now to try to fix the situation and hold people to account.

He said he apologizes to veterans, he apologizes to members of Congress and says "I will not defend what's happened because it is indefensible," saying, though, that he can take responsibility but also showing -- bringing back in John Avlon and John Berman here with us as well -- he's not stepping down. He's fighting.

AVLON: He does not sound like a man who intends to step down or go gracefully away. He's going to have a meeting with the President later today and obviously --

BERMAN: 10:15.

AVLON: -- that will be --

BOLDUAN: We're just hearing that.

AVLON: Yes. And that will be pivotal. But he is not a man who wants to withdraw from this fight. He is committed. He is persistent. And tacked on to the end of the speech were some specific actions he's taken. Not just removing the head of the Phoenix VA Medical Center, announcing there are no bonuses, but calling on Congress to give him powers to fire more people and to fill some of the vacant positions that are in place.

BOLDUAN: But these are actions that he had taken that people have wanted to see -- no bonuses, firing the senior staff in Phoenix outright. Also taking away wait times as a measurement for success here. You're starting to see the blueprint of how he wants to address this going forward.

And as of now, he thinks he's going to be the person to address it going forward, at least for the next hour and 15 minutes because he meets with the President at 10:15. Is this a message he can take into the Oval Office?

AVLON: This is clearly the message he's taking to the Oval Office. I'm on it. This is urgent. I cannot defend what occurred. He said in his remarks that he thought these were isolated incidents. And he is shocked to realize that breach of integrity is actually systemic. He used those words. So by putting forward the outlines of a plan, you can safely assume that's what he's bringing to the Oval Office.

BOLDUAN: But here is the one outline of the plan that leaves a lot of questions still. He will accelerate access to care for Veterans across the country both inside and outside the VA. That's the big question. How do you do that now when he says we can fix this, we can do this in the days ahead when this is a systemic issue that we're learning from the IG's only interim report. We don't even know how far this goes yet.

AVLON: That's right. And he said the larger report will be released within days. But that's the problem where rhetoric meets reality. I mean unless you were to back --

BOLDUAN: That's the real thing. How do you regain the trust of veterans, if you really say you're going to accelerate access when that was not the case to this point?

AVLON: And how do you actually do it. You know, folks in Congress, the Republican side of the aisle saying maybe they should offer vouchers so people can go outside the system to reduce wait times. That is unlikely to be something the administration backs. But in a crisis sometimes you get strange political bedfellows -- that's one solution here.

The other thing I think that's striking for people to appreciate is that the secretary doesn't have the kind of firing power you would normally assume someone in charge of a vast bureaucracy would have. And that is itself an impediment to reform. But this sounds like a man who is fighting for his job and really wants to see these reforms through and realizes its inexcusable what's been occurring.

BOLDUAN: The problem is going to be his own words though. He says the problem is systemic. He now realizes the problem is systemic. He is the man at the top of the system.

BOLDUAN: He says I cannot defend it, but I can take responsibility for it. What that means will be up to the President and that important meeting, that serious conversation they will be having in just a couple of hours from now.

John Avlon, thank you so much.

We're going to have much more on Shinseki's speech right after the break. Stick with us.


BOLDUAN: Happy Friday everyone. A busy news day ahead. John and I are going to call out now and hand it over to the "NEWSROOM" and Don Lemon -- Don.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: You guys did a great job and it is a big news day. Thank you, have a great weekend.

The "CNN NEWSROOM" starts right now.