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Lawmakers Blast V.A. Official Over Care; White House Lawyer to Testify on IRS Emails; Mississippi Senate Primary Runoff; One-on-One with John Kerry on Iraq; Interview with Congressman Jeff Miller of Florida

Aired June 24, 2014 - 08:00   ET


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- a troubling pattern of care at hospitals, this as a whistleblower brings startling, new allegations that the Phoenix V.A. hospital covered up the true number of vets who have died while waiting for treatment.

CNN's Michelle Kosinski is at the White House with the very latest.

Where to begin, Michelle?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. This new whistleblower adds a whole new level to what's been going on at the V.A., and at this House committee hearing last night, these lawmakers were telling how they're also continuing to hear the horror stories from out there among their constituents.

It's going to take the system some time to heal, but for many, it remains infuriating.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm skeptical of the --

KOSINSKI (voice-over): The V.A. bureaucrats returned for this hearing with a far less defensive tone, an opening mea culpa.

DR. THOMAS LYNCH, DEPT. OF V.A.: This is a breach of trust. It is irresponsible, it is indefensible and it's unacceptable.

KOSINSKI: But then this was their answer to the very first question.

LYNCH: Mr. Chairman, I don't have the answer to that question.

KOSINSKI: And here we go again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It pains me that we're at this point. How did we get here?

KOSINSKI: Members of Congress getting angrier.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The reality is you're not outraged.

LYNCH: I think it is a good system. I think --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, it's not a good system. How could you say you think it is a good system?

LYNCH: I think it is a good system.


LYNCH: Yes, Congressman.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not if you're a veteran.

LYNCH: And they're hearing from their constituents.

REP. DAVID JOLLY (R), FLORIDA: I was approached by a mom whose son committed suicide while waiting for mental health services.

REP. PHIL ROE (R), TENNESSEE: For five months, he didn't get treated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was referred to get a biopsy done to determine whether or not he had cancer. He couldn't be seen for two months.

KOSINSKI: The Office of Special Counsel just sent a letter to President Obama detailing a culture of non-responsiveness at the V.A., all kinds of problems. Maybe the most stunning was in a long-term mental health facility in Brockton, Massachusetts. One veteran had his first mental health evaluation eight years after he moved in!

Another veteran, seven years.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have surrendered everything.

KOSINSKI: Now, a whistleblower in Phoenix, where the scandal broke and where 35 veterans died awaiting care, tells CNN's Drew Griffin she was instructed to keep a secret waiting list while she made life-or- death decisions about whom to schedule, and said someone has now gone into the system and changed the status of several deceased veterans to still alive.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: To hide the fact people died on that list?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's my belief.

GRIFFIN: What would be any other purpose?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There wouldn't be any other purpose.

GRIFFIN: As this story broke, while the hearing was going on, more disbelief.

REP. JACKIE WALORSKY (R), INDIANA: Still, while we've been doing this, this hearing for a couple months, Americans are literally wondering when is this going to stop.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KOSINSKI: So, the V.A. says, OK, well, now we have the tools and the data to find a way forward, but it's clear that they're really in the triage stage just dealing with the emergency at hand. And lawmakers want to know why it took so long for these problems to come to light. It really highlights the importance of whistleblowers out there, many of whom faced retaliation -- John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Finding out the truth. Michelle Kosinski at the White House, thank you so much.

You know, there was a lot of anger on Capitol Hill last night in a different hearing, this as we learn that a top White House lawyer will take the stand in day two of a House oversight hearing on lost e-mails at the IRS. Today's testimony follows a political back-and-forth surrounding claims that the IRS targeted conservative groups.

CNN's Athena Jones in Washington covering this for us.

What's the latest, Athena?


That's right, a lot of angry words, some tough questioning, a lot of accusations being thrown around last night during this hearing. It lasted for more than 3 1/2 hours, and Republicans spent much of that time blasting the IRS commissioner, accusing him of working to cover up the fact that there were all these missing e-mails.

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were fired up, as was the commissioner himself. I want to play for you a brief exchange of one of the many heated moments from last night. This is between the IRS commissioner, John Koskinen, and Congressman Mike Turner, a Republican from Ohio.

Let's play that.


REP. MIKE TURNER (R), OHIO: Do you have any ability to say no crime has been committed?

JOHN KOSKINEN, IRS COMMISSIONER: I have the ability to say I've seen no evidence of any crime.

TURNER: Of course, but you cannot say what I've asked you, that no crime has been committed.


JONES: So, Democrats took issue with those accusations, so did the commissioner, but this all shows you how heated things got last night, and today is part two of that hearing, and we can expect a lot of the same tone, a lot of the same tough questioning today, John.

BERMAN: Nasty tone, to be clear there, Athena.

I do understand there is another investigation already into all of this.

JONES: Well, there is, that's right. The commissioner told that committee last night that the treasury inspector general for tax administration has already launched an investigation into these missing Lois Lerner e-mails. So, we can expect to see an independent review, though the report from that inspector general will come out at some point -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Thanks so much, Athena.

BOLDUAN: Primary voters are going to polls in seven states today, and some political careers are very much on the line. In Mississippi, six-term Republican Senator Thad Cochran is battling Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel in a primary runoff after both failed to get 50 percent of the vote the first time around that was required.

CNN's Dana Bash is watching this one closely. She is live in Jackson, Mississippi.

Dana, you were there on the first primary day. What's the runoff looking like?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, on that day three weeks ago, fewer than 1,500 votes separated the two, and it is still incredibly tight, Kate. The Republican challenger, the conservative, is trying to really ride that anti-Washington wave, which is still very, very strong here. And so, the incumbent is trying to broaden his base beyond Republicans to try to win.


BASH (voice-over): Thirty-six-year Senate veteran Thad Cochran is so embracing the Senate seniority, he flew in a famous establishment Republican, John McCain, to help close the deal with Mississippi voters.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Send Thad Cochran, a good and decent and honorable servant, back to the United States Senate.

BASH: Cochran's conservative opponent, Chris McDaniel, got more votes in the June 3rd GOP primary, but not the 50 percent needed to win, sparking a three-week runoff.

Tea Party groups already invested in McDaniel as their best hope of defeating a Senate GOP incumbent redoubled efforts.

CHRIS MCDANIEL (R), SENATE CANDIDATE MISSISSIPPI: The conservative resurgence for this country starts right here in Mississippi.

BASH: Nervous traditional Republicans from around the country trying to beat back the Tea Partier here, too. The Chamber of Commerce airing a Hail Mary TV ad with former star quarterback and Mississippi native Brett Favre.

BRETT FAVRE, FORMER STAR QUARTERBACK: Thad Cochran always delivers, just like he did during Katrina. BASH: And the super PAC supporting Cochran is spending money courting

Democrats allowed to vote in the GOP runoff.

(on camera): You're not a Republican, are you?


BASH (voice-over): Especially African-Americans who want to help a Republican helping them for years.

Jackie Brand passed out 5,000 Cochran fliers.

BRAND: Traditionally, African-Americans vote a certain party, Democrat, right? And we wanted to raise the awareness to African- Americans that we do have a stake in this runoff election.

BASH: McDaniel argues Cochran reaching out to Democrats will fire up conservatives against him even more.

MCDANIEL: If Senator Cochran is going to court liberal Democrats to save his seat, it is a clear indication that he has abandoned conservatives in the state of Mississippi.

BASH (on camera): I just talked to Chris McDaniel who said that the fact that you're courting African-American Democrats, or Democrats in general, is proof that you're a liberal, you're not a conservative.

SEN. THAD COCHRAN (R), MISSISSIPPI: Is that right? Well, you know, my responsibility as a United States senator has been to represent the people in the state of Mississippi, not just one party or one race.


BASH: Now, polls opened just a few minutes ago, and I am, John, at a predominantly African-American precinct to see just how much turnout there is going to be.

So far, there's actually more than even the poll workers expected. Again, the polls just opened a few minutes ago.

But the other thing that's going on here is that Tea Party groups have formed together to send monitors to places like this. We haven't seen them yet, but to send monitors to make sure laws aren't being broken, which has some people concerned about voter intimidation.

BERMAN: It will be interesting to watch as it unfolds throughout the day.

Stay with CNN. Obviously, we'll bring you the voting and the results as they come in tonight.

Dana Bash in Mississippi, thanks so much.

Now to Iraq, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is getting a sobering assessment of the situation there on the ground. Iraq's Kurdish leader told Kerry that Iraq is facing a new reality. This comes a day after Kerry sat down with the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, who agreed to bring forth a political compromise and begin the process to form a new government, a lot of words there.

CNN's Jim Sciutto spoke with Kerry and has more from Erbil in Iraq.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: As Secretary Kerry touches down in Iraq for the second time during this crucial Mideast tour, he says that the president is prepared to take military action, even before Iraqi leaders reach the political compromise that the administration believes is necessary for any medium-term or long- term solution, says the president has options prepared and that when he takes military action, it will be sustained and intense.

We were able to sit down with Secretary Kerry here in Erbil.

Twelve days ago, June 12th, the president said he was appearing with the Australian prime minister, "That my team is working around the clock on options to respond." During that 12 days since, we calculated, ISIS has captured an additional 11 cities and towns, a key refinery, crucial roadways and border crossings.

Hasn't the delay in the administration's response here on the ground, military action, strengthened ISIS during that time?

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think -- I think the real question, Jim, is not sort of what happened in those days, the question is what can happen going forward, the strategy that's really going to work.

The reason the president sent me out here is that if he were to make the decision, and he may have to, ultimately, but if he made the decision without trying to see whether or not you can have a government that can work or reconstitute the military, then you have a whole different set of options.

SCIUTTO: But you said yesterday that the president was prepared to act before there's political compromise.

KERRY: He might be. Well, he's always prepared to act under any circumstance. He reserves the right to use force, if he has to, if it's going to accomplish a goal.

SCIUTTO: I just wonder how you feel personally, because more than two years ago, you advocated for more robust support for moderate rebel groups inside Syria. When the president was considering military action in Syria, some said you gave the speech of your life, advocating for that action, explaining for it. Of course, it didn't happen.

Since then, the war, and again, we have to speak of it across borders, Syria and Iraq, has only deteriorated, and I just wonder if you're personally frustrated to watch that.

KERRY: Let's be crystal clear, Jim. The reason that the decision to strike Syria didn't happen was because we ultimately came up with a better solution after the president made his decision to strike.

SCIUTTO: On chemical weapons, but that hasn't affected the calculus on the ground.

KERRY: But the purpose of the strike was to send a message to Assad, don't use chemical weapons, not a strike that was calculated to end the regime or to get involved in the war directly. It was to end the use of chemical weapons.

We found a better solution. We got all of the chemical weapons out. Yesterday, we announced 100 percent of the chemical weapons that are declared have been removed.

Now, that's a very significant accomplishment, and I want to emphasize, the president of the United States, Barack Obama, made his decision to use that force.

SCIUTTO: But ISIS has only grown as a threat during that time period.

KERRY: You're absolutely correct, is has grown as a threat because countless numbers of jihadists are flocking to Syria to oppose Assad. Assad is a magnet for terrorists.

SCIUTTO: Here in Kurdistan, the political divisions that are pulling Iraq apart are clear. Kurdistan operates essentially independently. The Kurds made a land grab of their own in the last week, seizing Kirkuk.

And as Secretary Kerry met the Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, Barzani told him there is a new Iraq. As with military action, political action here will require U.S. help and pressure that is also sustained and intense.

Jim Sciutto, CNN, Erbil, northern Iraq.


PEREIRA: And just with that reality in Iraq is yet to be seen, for sure. Thanks for that, Jim.

Let's look at more of your headlines. We start with breaking news.

We have just learned that the Sudanese woman who was sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith and was freed, she has been arrested at an airport as she and her husband were trying to fly out of Sudan. Mariam Ibrahim was back with her husband Monday after being freed by an appeals court, but now she and her family are being held at the Sudanese national security office. The 27-year-old gave birth to a daughter in prison last month. Her sentence had drawn condemnation from around the world.

A federal court has released a secret Justice Department memo on a drone strike that killed a U.S. citizen. The memo details the legal argument for targeting Anwar al Awlaki, an American thought to be a top al Qaeda operative. The memo authorized military force against Awlaki as a leader of an enemy force. He was killed by a CIA drone in Yemen in 2011.

The final stockpile of Syria's declared chemical weapons have been handed over now to a United Nations task force. It's the first time a country's entire chemical arsenal has been removed from its borders. The most dangerous material is set to be destroyed aboard a U.S. ship at sea. This handover was part of a deal reached last fall under the threat of U.S. airstrikes, but there are still questions about whether or not Syria's hiding undeclared poisonous gases that are not classified as chemical weapons.

Happening today, the House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on children crossing into the U.S. without their parents. More than 50,000 children have crossed the border from Mexico alone since October. The U.S. has said it does not have the resources to care for all these children.

Vice President Joe Biden met with leaders recently in Central America to discuss this ongoing problem.

I want to show you an amazing rescue caught on camera in Richmond, Texas. A woman pulled to safety by a police officer just moments before a train barreled through.


PEREIRA: That is officer Ramon Morales. He's only been on the force for less than a year. He was alerted to this woman sitting there on the tracks and the imminent danger. He arrived just as the crossing arms were going down, ran to her just in the nick of time.

Thankfully, no one was hurt. That woman was taken to the hospital for evaluation.

BERMAN: Good work there by that officer. Obviously, something going on there. Our thoughts are with them.

BOLDUAN: Yes, absolutely.

Coming up next on NEW DAY, more on the new allegations the Phoenix V.A. tried to cover up veterans' deaths. The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee is joining us. Did he get answers that he wants in that contentious hearing last night?


BOLDUAN: We're continuing to follow CNN's explosive, new reporting this morning exposing what appears to be deliberate efforts to hide how many veterans actually died while waiting for care at the Phoenix V.A. hospital, this as V.A officials testified on Capitol Hill about the scandal-plagued department.



REP. JEFF MILLER (R), FLORIDA: Can you give me an idea where the funds were supposed to be spent?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I will get that information for you.

MILLER: I guess the big question is, almost $500 million sitting there in the bank, and why do we have a backlog the size of the one we've got? How did we get here?


BOLDUAN: How did we get here?

Joining us now, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Congressman Jeff Miller of Florida.

Congressman, it's great to see you.

MILLER: Good morning.

BOLDUAN: You said last night, you called it unconscionable. You also told me back in May, and it did stick with me on this program, you said that we are just looking at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what's going on with the V.A. That was May.

Are we now looking at the iceberg finally?

MILLER: I would say that we're probably below the water, but I can guarantee you this, there's more to come. CNN, obviously, has been breaking story after story. We have whistleblowers all across the country now that feel comfortable and safe coming out and telling us that they have, in fact, been pressured by their superiors to cook the books, and in some cases, it appears that they've been told to hide people who have died while on the waiting list.

BOLDUAN: Mr. Chairman, how much worse can they get? Please give me some scenario. I know you have been looking into this, but we've got allegations of people cooking the books, we've got allegations of veterans dying while waiting for care, and then having them change the status of those people to make it look better.

You now have new allegations that it took one man eight years in a psychiatric facility to even see a doctor for the first time. How much worse can it get?

MILLER: I think it's going to get worse, and I think people need to be prepared for that. I know that the acting secretary, Sloan Gibson, is trying to take ownership of what's going on and to instruct his folks that they need to tell the truth.

The problem is, a lot of people just don't know what's going on inside the agency that has 330,000 employees, and that's very, very troubling for the second largest agency in the federal government, not to know the answers that we were asking them last night.

BOLDUAN: Mr. Chairman, do you have evidence that this is getting worse, that you just can't reveal right now? MILLER: We have had whistleblowers, including the whistleblower that

was on the CNN report last night, telling us that, in fact, yes, data has been changed. Of course, everybody's focused on Phoenix right now because that's the one that got everybody's attention, and Dr. Foote said at least 40 veterans died while on the waiting list.

Of course, the department wanted to say that it was an anomaly, that it was a very isolated incident. We are now at a confirmed 35 veterans who died while on the list, and I suspect the number's going to rise.

BOLDUAN: Do you -- how much further in terms of the number of facilities do you think this goes? Because as you've said, a lot of the focus has been on the Phoenix V.A. system. Where else?

MILLER: I know within the V.A. itself, they're looking at well over 60 facilities out there. I suspect that you're going to see many, many more. Of course, the FBI has now said that they're launching a criminal investigation, which is very appropriate, because it appears that some people did, in fact, break the law.

And we don't need to lose the fact that already V.A. has admitted that 23 veterans have died in recent years that have died because of delays in their care.

BOLDUAN: You pointed out CNN's reporting. Drew Griffin is a great reporter, and he has done some amazing work uncovering this story, but it does make you wonder, and I know folks have asked this at home -- why did it take Drew? Why did it take these whistleblowers to figure this out? Your committee has oversight over this agency.

MILLER: Sure, and remember this, our committee actually broke the story on April 9th. Nobody was talking about this. Drew's story came several days after we broke the story and actually talked about what Dr. Foote was saying. We've held 70 hearings in the House specifically on V.A. issues, of which over 50 of those have been oversight hearings.

We've been doing our job, and I've been asking the question, where has the media been over the last 3 1/2 years while we have been raising the alarm saying that there are very large issues at the department.

BOLDUAN: You brought up this question last night. I thought it was intriguing and I want to ask you and get your take on this as the chair of the House committee that has oversight on the V.A. You asked, how did the culture become so corrupt at the V.A.? What do you think?

MILLER: I think that over the years, the V.A. has just been given dollar after dollar. Their mid-level management has become bloated. They have not been hiring people at the level that they need to. The people that actually touch and provide the health care for the veterans that are out there today.

And it basically became a rudderless ship, whereas it was running itself. And I have said this for a long time. I said it to Secretary Shinseki. Sir, these people know that they will be in the bureaucracy longer than you will be the secretary or longer than the president will be in the White House.

BOLDUAN: You know, it's interesting you bring up the managers, because that's, I think, a key question here looking forward. We know now that senior managers, all of them in the V.A. system got essentially stellar performance ratings for 2013, leading most of them to be up for bonuses.

Drew was talking about this yesterday, and he acknowledged that this sounded drastic, but he said, with how bad it is right now, he doesn't see a way to fix the system without throwing out all the senior managers at the V.A. and starting over. Would you support that?

MILLER: I would support throwing out those that have gamed the system or who have forced people not to do their job. We know there are some in the senior management that, in fact, are doing their job and doing it appropriately and focusing on their particular facility.

But what we're trying to unravel right now is who knew what and when did they know it? Was this a culture that everybody knew about it and they just kept quiet because they were accepting of it? You know, you've got the V.A. that's going in and investigating itself.

The very people in the office of medical inspector that had been going around doing this, that actually, the office of special counsel wrote the letter to the president yesterday. But these are people that they grew up in the system, they knew each other, and so, they are less likely to hold each other accountable. And unfortunately, that's gotten us where we are today.

BOLDUAN: You said some of them have been doing a good job, and that's absolutely right. There are many people, probably, within the V.A. system that are doing their jobs. But unfortunately, no one could have guessed it was this bad, though. On the senior manager level, give me some idea of what percentage, how many of them you think are going to have to go or that you think are going to be implicated in this.

MILLER: Well, I'm not prepared to tell you a number at this point because we are still investigating. We're still trying to find how far up inside the central office in Washington this went.

BOLDUAN: Real quick, how long is this investigation going to happen? Because you know at this point, people are saying, stop asking for explanations and start firing.

MILLER: Well, obviously, you're not going to fire somebody who's doing their job. And you have to find out who has not been doing their job. And I will tell you this, the unfortunate thing is the people at Phoenix that caused the problem at Phoenix are still on the payroll.

They do not have the ability to fire them, and that's why the bill that the House passed that I sponsored would give the secretary the ability to fire senior managers who will not or refuse to do their job.

BOLDUAN: Congressman Jeff Miller. Congressman, thank you for holding the hearings.

MILLER: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you for asking the questions. We'll have you back on, because as you said, you think we're just now seeing the iceberg and there's a lot more to come.

MILLER: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman.


BERMAN: We all need to make this better. >

Next up for us on NEW DAY, a close encounter with a great white shark off New Jersey caught on video, and it's not the only one. Why are great white shark sightings on the rise? And perhaps unrelated, or perhaps not, who is Jurgen Klinsmann? Meet Team USA's outspoken head coach as he prepares for Thursday's game against Germany, a team he also once coached. That's ahead.