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Voice Discrimination?; Mystery at Sea; Who Is Jack Abramoff?

Aired January 12, 2006 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening, everyone. Glad to have you with us.
Tonight, the latest twist in a crime that has captured headlines, baffled investigators and left a family brokenhearted.


ZAHN (voice-over): Gone without a trace -- how did this couple's honeymoon become a mystery at sea?

MARIE BREHERET, ROYAL CARIBBEAN GUEST RELATIONS MANAGER: She was crying and surprised. And she kept saying that it was like a dream, and she would wake up, and George will be there.

ZAHN: Now, with dramatic new details, we will take you through the final moments of a chilling disappearance.

Money, power, and panic -- he had cash connections to the nation's biggest power brokers. Now he has them bracing for the biggest scandal in decades.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Corruption scheme with Mr. Abramoff is very extensive. And we will continue to follow it wherever it leads.

ZAHN: Tonight, who is Jack Abramoff, and who will he take down with him?

And tonight's "Eye Opener" -- mad as hell , and he couldn't take it anymore -- amazing video, as a clerk takes on the guy he says robbed him five times in a month.


ZAHN: And we start tonight with a story that everyone has been talking about for months, the baffling disappearance of George Smith, a Connecticut honeymooner who vanished from a cruise ship in the Mediterranean last summer.

It is most recent example of people simply vanishing from cruise ships. In fact, it has happened to about a dozen people in the past two years. Now, the disappearance of George Smith has been shaking up the cruise industry. And every new detail only adds to the deepening mystery.

Now, after staying silent for nearly six months, the cruise line is telling its side of the story. Deborah Feyerick has more.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It all comes down to a single hour. Sometime between 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning, on a cruise ship sailing in Greek waters, American George Smith disappeared -- the lives of his new bride, parents and sister shattered. This is what they believe.

BREE SMITH, GEORGE SMITH'S SISTER: My brother was murdered at the age of 26 with a promising future and a lifetime of happiness ahead of him.

FEYERICK: The FBI will not talk about the case or even whether it might be murder. But new details released by the cruise line provide clues as to what happened that night, clues specifically about that hour.

It began in the ship's disco, with George Smith, his wife, Jennifer, and a group of friends they had met on board. Around 4:00 a.m., the party ended. For some reason, the newlyweds went separate ways. Cruise officials say, George Smith was helped back to his cabin by four of his new friends. The men were so loud, the passenger next door, a vacationing police officer, told CNN he banged on the wall and called security to complain.

RICHARD FAIN, CHAIRMAN & CEO, ROYAL CARIBBEAN: He called down and said that he was hearing partying noises or drinking games in the cabin next door. We sent up a security officer.

FEYERICK: Richard Fain is chief executive officer of Royal Caribbean. He says ship records indicate, the security officer arrived at the Smiths' cabin some 20 minutes after the call.

FAIN: He knocked on the door, and there was no noise coming at that point. There was no answer to it. We don't force entrance on that basis. And, so, he left, thinking everything was fine.

FEYERICK: It is unclear whether George Smith and the others were still inside then. But the passenger, that vacationing police officer who called security, tells CNN, in the minutes before security arrived, he heard an argument in the Smith cabin. Three men left. But someone stayed inside, opening and closing doors. There were sounds of furniture being moved to the balcony and then a really loud thud, as if something had been thrown overboard.

So, where was Jennifer Smith? Cruise officials say, at that critical time, around 4:30 in the morning, a cleaning woman found her in a different part of the ship, sleeping on a hallway floor. The same officer who, just 10 minutes earlier, had checked on the Smiths' cabin, was sent to check on a sleeping bride.

FAIN: They asked her if she was OK, awakened her, asked her if she was OK. She said she was fine. FEYERICK: Cruise officials say, because of the earlier noise complaint, two security guards used a pass key to check the Smiths' cabin, before bringing Jennifer Smith back.

FAIN: The cabin looked normal. There was nothing amiss in the cabin, but there was no one there. At this point, they went back in the cabin, and, again, with her, put her to bed.

FEYERICK: It was 5:00 in the morning. The ship docked in Turkey. Hours later, at 8:30, according to the cruise line, passengers discovered bloodstains larger than a basketball on a lifeboat canopy below the Smiths' balcony, some 60 feet above the water.

FAIN: The captain immediately ordered the area sealed off. And he ordered a search to find the people in the cabins that were immediately above that point.

FEYERICK: Smith's family and attorney maintain, blood was all over the cabin. The cruise line says that simply is wrong.

FAIN: If there was lots of blood around the room, it would have alerted our people at 4:30 in the morning. It would have alerted Mrs. Hagel Smith when she woke up in the morning. It would have alerted everybody right away. But there was none of that. There was no signs of a struggle. This is not a room that was covered in blood. There was no blood trail, as some people have said.

FEYERICK: If Jennifer Smith did notice blood in the room, she never alerted the crew, before heading to the spa at 8:30 a.m. for a massage.

(on camera): She never indicated to you that there was anything wrong between she and George?


FEYERICK: She didn't say, we got into a fight?


FEYERICK: And she didn't even think it was odd that he hadn't slept in the cabin that night?


FEYERICK (voice-over): Marie Breheret heads guest relations on board the ship. She was with Jennifer Smith when the captain broke the news George may have fallen overboard.

BREHERET: She was crying and surprised. And she kept saying that it was like a dream, and she would wake up, and George will be there.

FEYERICK: In a letter to Congress advocating cruise ship reform, Jennifer Smith says -- quote -- "Three Royal Caribbean cruise line men told me that my husband had gone overboard in Greek waters. I couldn't breathe. I felt like I was suffocating. My teeth were chattering. Tears were falling, and then I went numb all over."

According to cruise officials, Turkish police questioned Jennifer Smith separately, and then in the presence of an FBI agent and an official from the U.S. Consulate.

BREHERET: She was crying. And, again, she -- she was disoriented and confused. She didn't know what was going on. She didn't know why the inspector was asking these kind of question.

FEYERICK (on camera): Turkish police boarded the ship. They collected fingerprints, blood samples and forensic evidence from the Smiths' cabin. Turkish authorities say they gave the FBI 10- to 15- page report of their findings and that Turkish police had no conclusive evidence that George Smith accidentally fell, was thrown overboard, or killed.

(voice-over): The Smith family has accused Royal Caribbean of a cover-up, claiming evidence was compromised. A lawyer for Jennifer Smith says security officers should have entered the cabin after the initial noise complaint.

JAMES WALKER, ATTORNEY FOR JENNIFER HAGEL SMITH: So, if the security guards had simply listened to what the passengers were begging and get in there, and take a look around, they would have found his blood. If they had looked outside, they could have stopped the ship and tried to save him, or looked for him, or they could have perhaps found him on the awning and saved his life.

FEYERICK: Both the widow and family say they're planning to sue the cruise line.

The head of Royal Caribbean says every protocol was followed.

FAIN: We did turn over some 97 different tapes to the FBI. And that is part of their investigation. So, I don't know what they -- they found on them.

FEYERICK (on camera): So, technically, the answer to what happened that night could be on those tapes?

FAIN: It might be. I think the FBI is looking at that.

FEYERICK (voice-over): That is little consolation to the Smiths.

SMITH: George hasn't surfaced, so, we have no body to bury. And we have no grave to pray at.

FEYERICK: Federal prosecutors in Connecticut have now taken over the case. They will not say when they plan to release their findings.


FEYERICK: Two of the young men who had helped George Smith back to his cabin in that crucial hour had been warned days earlier they were being way too rowdy.

Well, several days after Smith disappeared, both were kicked off the ship in connection with the alleged sexual assault of a female passenger -- Paula.

ZAHN: So, the question tonight is, are we any closer to understanding exactly what happened to George Smith?

FEYERICK: No. It is that critical hour. There are so many theories. Was he hurt when he went back to his room? Was his body thrown overboard? Was it a joke? Was it an accident? Was it outright murder? Nobody knows. And that's why it is so critical. And they want to know what that evidence shows in that room.

ZAHN: The evidence also shows that his wife, Jennifer Smith, was asleep. Haven't other people told you she was passed out?

FEYERICK: She was...

ZAHN: And is she a suspect in this?

FEYERICK: She is not a suspect. But having said she is not a suspect, she also has absolutely no answers as to what happened. And I think that's part of the frustration of this entire investigation.

She wasn't near the cabin. It does not appear she was near the cabin when this critical window was going on with these men who were there with George Smith.

ZAHN: But the one question you have got to ask, if there was as much blood in the room as she says there was, then why didn't she report that after she awakened and then headed off for a spa treatment?


ZAHN: Does anybody know the answer to that?

FEYERICK: It is really her attorneys and the attorneys for the Smith family who have said that there were pools of blood. But the cruise line outright disputes that. There was blood in the cabin. Sources have confirmed that to us.

However, there was not as much blood, there wasn't the type of blood or the amount of blood where you wake up and say, oh, my God, what happened here?

And, for all intents and purposes, there wasn't such a clear indication that there had been a massive struggle in the room either. And that's why nobody knows exactly what happened to George Smith.

ZAHN: Is anyone confident they will ever get the answer to that question?

FEYERICK: The FBI is investigating right now. They have a huge amount of evidence. They have the report that Turkish authorities handed over to them. They also have some of the videotapes.

So, there have to be some answers on that tape. Will there be enough evidence to charge somebody? Big question.

ZAHN: Keep us posted. Deborah Feyerick, thanks for dropping by tonight.


ZAHN: Still to come, Florida police need some help in finding some young men who are "Outside the Law."


KATHERINE COLLINS, FORT LAUDERDALE POLICE DEPARTMENT: There was no provocation. There was no confrontation. They just attacked them when they were most vulnerable.


ZAHN: Coming up next, absolutely shocking pictures -- why would anyone attack homeless people for apparently no reason at all?

Also ahead:


JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Jason Carroll. Could you be discriminated against just because of the way you sound on the phone? Coming up next, we will show you the surprising results when two people with the same credentials, but different dialects, call about an apartment.

That story coming up next on PAULA ZAHN NOW.


ZAHN: And also ahead, fact or fiction? A best-selling author defends his book. Is a high-profile celebrity still on his side? And that would be Oprah we're talking about. Find out.


ZAHN: I want to warn you now that some of the images you will be seeing in a few seconds are vicious and disturbing. Tonight, police in South Florida are on lookout for as many as four young men after a series of attacks on homeless people.

One of those beatings was caught on camera, as David Mattingly shows us in tonight's "Outside the Law."


DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was about 1:30 Thursday morning when a surveillance camera recorded these horrifying images, two young white men using baseball bats or long sticks repeatedly striking an African-American man. They run away when a car's headlights approach. The victim is unable to get up.

He eventually notifies a security guard and is now hospitalized in serious condition. This attack happened at Florida Atlantic University's downtown campus in Fort Lauderdale. About an hour later, a second homeless man was attacked nearby at the Broward Center for Performing Arts. People say the victim, Norris Gaynor, was an artist who never bothered anyone. He was barely alive when Eric Williams found him and called 911.

ERIC WILLIAMS, WITNESS: He was on the bench. He was slumped over. And all you seen was a pool of blood, you know, and just sitting there. No one was around.

MATTINGLY: Gaynor was rushed to the hospital, where he died. Police have removed the bench, hoping to find evidence that will lead them to whoever is responsible.

Then, about 4:00 a.m., there was a third beating, this time in an upscale neighborhood. Another homeless man was attacked near a church. He too is now hospitalized, in serious condition. Police say the three attacks may be related. They would like help identifying the two young men in the surveillance pictures.

KATHERINE COLLINS, FORT LAUDERDALE POLICE DEPARTMENT: They took advantage of these individuals at -- at their weakest moment, whether they were asleep or certainly not expecting anything like this. So, you know, there was no provocation. There was no confrontation.

MATTINGLY: Advocates for the homeless are handing out flyers around Fort Lauderdale, alerting people about the attacks.

SEAN CONONIE, FOUNDER, THE HOMELESS VOICE: Any time you have this type of vicious behavior, it is not going to go away. Hope -- hopefully, it is just an isolated incident, but, you know, they will strike again.

MATTINGLY: To avoid a repetition of such brutal confrontations, homeless people around Fort Lauderdale are being advised to stay in shelters at night and to be extra careful, no matter where they might be.

David Mattingly, CNN, Atlanta.


ZAHN: And it may just be coincidence, but the National Coalition for the Homeless has just put out a new list of what it calls the meanest cities in the country. Fort Lauderdale isn't ranked in the top 20. But Sarasota, Florida, heads the list, followed by Lawrence, Kansas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Atlanta, Georgia; and Las Vegas. The group weighed such factors as anti-homeless laws, police enforcement and political attitudes.

We are moving up on just about 17 minutes past the hour. That means it is time to check in with Erica Hill at Headline News to update some of the hour's other top stories. Hi, Erica.

ERICA HILL, HEADLINE NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Paula, more controversy tonight over Iran's renegade nuclear program. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Iran must be confronted over its defiance of the U.N. Atomic Energy Agency. She will meet with British, French and German officials, who condemned Iran for restarting its research. Iran insists it has that right.

Evangelist Pat Robertson asked Israelis to forgive him today for suggesting that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was God's punishment for giving up land to the Palestinians. Sharon remains in a coma. Robertson says he's praying for him.

President Bush visited the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast today. He said he has seen dramatic improvements in the last four years -- four months, that is, of course -- predicting -- predicting a building boom as well, and pledged continued support from the federal government.

And Roger Coleman, executed in Virginia in 1992, was guilty of murder after all. The state of Virginia says DNA tests confirm Coleman was indeed the one who raped and murdered his sister-in-law. Now, that ends a years-long legal battle to prove he was innocent.

And, Paula, that's a look at the headlines at this hour -- back over to you in New York.

ZAHN: See you a little bit later on in the hour. Erica Hill, thanks so much.

Coming up next, could the very sound of your voice disqualify you from getting a home or even a job?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... thought it, the more angry I was becoming.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. I don't have any pets.


ZAHN: It can't possibly be legal, but how do you prove that you're being discriminated against because of the way you sound?

Plus, another story with amazing, eye-opening video -- would you have the nerve to go after a would-be robber like this? A man whose store was struck five times -- we will have more on that when we come back.


ZAHN: So, we have a question for you tonight: If someone turned you down for a mortgage or an apartment just because of the sound of your voice on the telephone, how would you feel? I would imagine pretty darn outraged. But you might be surprised to learn that that goes on all the time. You're about to meet a man who says it happened to him, and now he is fighting back.

Here is Jason Carroll.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi. I'm calling about the sales position I saw advertised.


CARROLL (voice-over): What can you tell about someone simply by the way they sound on the phone?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi. I'm calling to get information about mortgage rates.


CARROLL: A caller's gender might seem obvious. But what about other characteristics?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi. I read your ad in the paper about the apartment for rent.


CARROLL: Like a person's race. It is a sensitive subject for James Robinson (ph), a mental health professional living in Saint Louis.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The more I thought it, the more angry I was becoming.

CARROLL: Robinson (ph) believes he was denied an apartment because, he says, he has what linguists call an African-American dialect.

(on camera): And this was the sign that you saw.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was the sign that was posted out front. And I got the number that you see at the bottom. And that's when I made my call.

CARROLL (voice-over): Robinson (ph) was told at first he had reached an answering service. Then, he says, something else odd happened.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I hear the voices muffled in the background. And she was telling the woman I was on the phone inquiring about a two-bedroom apartment. And the other woman asks, what does he sound like?

CARROLL: Robinson says the woman then told him nothing was available and hung up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just kind of sat there for a moment and just kept rethinking the whole conversation over and over.

CARROLL: Suspicious of his treatment, Robinson (ph) decided to conduct an experiment. He had a Latino friend call and then an African-American friend call the building. Both were told nothing was available. Then Robinson (ph) reached out to one of his white friends.

JIM LADD, FRIEND: James did call me and said, will you -- will you call this complex and....

CARROLL: Who says he called and got a much different response.

LADD: She said, we do have some apartments available.

CARROLL: Robinson (ph) took his findings to the Saint Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council.

KATINA COMBS, SAINT LOUIS EQUAL HOUSING OPPORTUNITY COUNCIL: We definitely hear and see a lot about voice profiling.

CARROLL: The EHOC conducted their own investigation, finding similar results, and filed a complaint on Robinson's (ph) behalf with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. An attorney for the building told CNN: "There is no evidence of any discrimination on my clients' part. The building in question is racially mixed."

(on camera): Would you call it a subtle form of discrimination or no? I mean, maybe that's just my words. What -- what -- what do you -- how do you qualify it?

COMBS: It is very subtle, extremely subtle. It is not like it used to be years ago, where you had signs in the yard that said, "For whites only" or "No colors allowed."

CARROLL (voice-over): So, to keep tabs on voice profiling, the EHOC constantly run tests. On the day we visit, a white and black tester call a different building, where another complaint has been filed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you looking for yourself?

CARROLL: Both are asked about employment and the type of apartment they need. But the black caller is told he needs to check out the area first.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. You can stop by and see the area. And if you like it, then you can call us and we can show you the apartment. CARROLL: He's then asked more questions never asked of the white tester.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How much approximately -- I don't want to know exact -- but approximately how much you are making every month?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I make about $31,000 per year.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And never had any problem?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. No. I have never been late on my rent.

CARROLL: The white tester is told of the apartment's amenities, never mentioned to the black caller.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And it has washer and dryer in it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dishwasher also, has garbage disposal, self-cleaning oven and a refrigerator.

CARROLL: In the end, the white caller is offered an appointment to see the unit. The black caller is never contacted.

PROFESSOR JOHN BAUGH, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: We have seen it throughout the country.

CARROLL: Professor John Baugh isn't surprised by the experiment's outcome. He's a linguistic expert who has written extensively about voice profiling and has run many tests of his own.

BAUGH: Using my professional voice, I called around and was told, please come and look at the apartments. But I would call back, and I modify my dialect a little bit, you understand, and I will call and I would say, hello, I'm calling about the apartment you have advertised in the paper. And when I used that rendition, I found that I got less of a positive response rate.

CARROLL: Baugh says only through testing, accountability and education can there ever be change.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, it's pretty much a shame, you know, that a person is not even given the chance to at least apply.

CARROLL: James Robinson's (ph) case is still pending. He says, despite the effort he has put into this, it has been worth it to show that a person's true character isn't determined by how they sound.


ZAHN: So outrageous...


ZAHN: ... that this is happening. Do -- the experts able to isolate where they think this is happening most often?

CARROLL: Well, they say it is widespread. It is all over the country. It happens in the East. It happens in the west, north and south. But they say, in areas that they have called transitional communities, that's where they really see it most.

ZAHN: What does that mean?

CARROLL: Transitional communities are really those areas where you may not have seen a number of minorities in the past, but they are places where a lot of minorities are now trying to move into now.

ZAHN: So, how much trouble can landlords get into...

CARROLL: Well...

ZAHN: ... if they practice this kind of screening?

CARROLL: It really depends upon how severe a particular case may be.

Fair Housing, what they will normally do is, they go after monetary damages, if it is very severe. Monetary damages can be a couple hundred dollars. They can even be a couple hundred thousand dollars, depending upon how serious the case is.

ZAHN: Well, I guess, when a fine comes to that, you probably take it pretty darn seriously.

CARROLL: You would think.

ZAHN: Thanks for bringing that to our attention.

CARROLL: All right.

ZAHN: Hope you help stop it.

CARROLL: Me, too.

ZAHN: Jason Carroll.

Coming up next, an attempted robbery that didn't work out the way a would-be thief had planned. In fact, he had hit this place four times before. Would you have the nerve to do what this man did with a bat? Wow.

Plus, the latest chapter in a huge controversy -- how is this best-selling author defending his book, and who is helping him out now that he's under fire?


ZAHN: I have a bit of a warning for you now. Before we look at this next story, police want you to know that if you're ever in the same situation, you shouldn't attempt what you are about to see. That is should not attempt. But, if you worked at a store that had been robbed four times in the last month, and the same robber was trying it again, you'll at least understand why the clerk reacted the way he did. This happened on Tuesday night in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and it is a real eye opener.


ZAHN (voice-over): It took only seconds.

The man in the hood hands the clerk a bag, and demands money. A man wearing the same kind of jacket had robbed this gas station convenience store in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, four other times in the last month.

But instead of reaching into the cash drawer, the clerk, Kolev (ph) Singh, reaches for a baseball bat and goes after the would-be robber. He lands at least six blows on the man's head and shoulders before a co-worker restrains him, allowing the would-be robber to run out the side door.

I'll show it to you again, and point out some things you couldn't hear and probably didn't notice. Before seeing lunges at the robber, he replies in a mocking tone, "oh, I'll give you the money." The clerk also pushed a button to simultaneously sound a silent police alarm and lock the main door, which is off screen to the right.

The would-be robber is trapped, so Singh is able to corner him. The co-worker is Singh's cousin, who shouted "stop, you're going to kill him." That's when the man got away, but not for long.

Police say 18-year-old Leonardo Vergas was covered with blood and had a good size knot on his head when he was arrested. They're charging him with those four previous robberies at the gas station, plus three more at other businesses.


ZAHN: And joining me is now Jimmy Singh. He happens to be the brother of the clerk who fought back. He's also the owner of that gas station and convenience store that was hit four times before.

Thanks so much for joining us tonight. It certainly appeared from the video, Jimmy, that your brother was ready for this robber. At what point did he recognize this alleged robber is the same guy who had hit your store four times before?

JIMMY SINGH, STORE OWNER: Because all the time he have the same jacket and mask on, you know, since he walk in from the right side, from the entrance. You know, I have two door and one is right and one is left. And usually he come from the same door, and he walk out from the same door, you know?

And usually he show -- he just show up inside, you know. You know, we always look outside and try to, you know, get him. But he just show up inside and the cash register, you know, always. You know, he just show up like four or five times, same thing. And we never -- you know, we're trying to look outside all the time and, you know, driving around. I don't know where he hiding or anything. We don't know. And this is always ...

ZAHN: So, Jimmy, was in the first time your brother ever had the bat ready to go?

SINGH: No. Yes, actually. You know, the last time, you know, he did in the daytime. That's the time, like, you know, 11:00 in the day until dusk. The other time like, we were ready for it. We can get him. We know he's like local person, and should be our regular customer also.

But he come to the store in daytime and, you know, we can't recognize him because, you know, he always have mask on, you know, when he walk in to try to rob the store.

ZAHN: All right.

SINGH: And my other guy always scared to give him the money all the time. You know, every time he walk in, he walk out with $600, $700. You know, so he's keeping coming back because we have good cash in the register all the time. And, you know, we try to control them, but we have -- all the time is kind of busy in the store and we can -- you know, guys can rob the money all the time.

ZAHN: Right. So was your brother planning to hit him like he did or just scare him?

SINGH: Yes, no. Actually, we were ready for it. You know, because I just left from the store like 10 minutes ago. And, you know, I always was driving around to, you know, catch this person or -- you know, and I went somewhere for like 10 minutes before this happened.

And, you know, otherwise I will be here too, so I missed this chance actually. You know, Mirar (ph) -- we don't want to hurt anyone. Mirar -- you know, we just can't -- you know, it is too much. Nobody want to work here, you know, because my other guy is kind of scared. And, you know, he don't want to work in even daytime. And I have two person all the time here, which we don't need it ...

ZAHN: Right.

SINGH: ... to hire two persons, so that's the whole thing.

ZAHN: Well, the cops seem, Jimmy, pretty confident tonight that they have the man they're interested in. We will continue to follow this. Thank you for joining us tonight and giving us a better idea of what happened there.

And still to come tonight, the biggest, juiciest and potentially most earth-shaking political scandal to hit Washington in years. Do you know who this guy is?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JACK ABRAMOFF, LOBBYIST: I've met many great people and obviously I've met some Democrats as well.


ZAHN: You know him? well, you need to. Stay with us for a who's who in Washington's newest corruption scandal.

And then a little bit later on, can you call it puppy love if it involves a baby hippo and this tortoise?

Plus, what happened when Oprah Winfrey called Larry King to talk about one of her favorite authors who is now under fire, accused of making up some stuff in his memoirs? We'll have more later.


ZAHN: So if you haven't heard this name before, seen it in screening headlines, you're going to have to get used to it because we're going to be hearing about it plenty, because Jack Abramoff is at the very heart of what could explode into the worst political scandal in Washington in a generation.

He was a powerful force in the Capitol, but last week he pleaded guilty to fraud, corruption and tax evasion, so we asked our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, to take us inside a story that's going to be very big this year.


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For $750 an hour, megalobbyist Jack Abramoff would take your case to the powers that be, press for a piece of friendly legislation, deep- six a bad one, give government money for your project. He was a Washington insider with a golden Rolodex, peddling access from the Republican side of the spectrum.

ABRAMOFF: I have met many folks over the time I've been here. I've met many great people and obviously I've met some Democrats as well.

CROWLEY: He opened doors with schmooze, moxie and money. Since the 2000 election, Abramoff, his associates or clients, stuffed almost $4 million into Republican and Democratic campaigns. Nothing illegal about the money, or about talking to friends in high places on behalf of people paying you to do so.

But a former employee describes a man with an ego bigger than his ethics. Investigators found the kind of guy who did not push the envelope, but blew right through it.

ALICE FISHER, DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE: The corruption scheme with Mr. Abramoff is very extensive and we will continue to follow it wherever it leads.

CROWLEY: The road is laid out in "Attachment A" of the plea agreement Abramoff worked out with the Feds. It is the story, according to Abramoff, who is looking to cut his jail time.

It claims that Abramoff and associate Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Congressman Tom DeLay, "provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts and influence."

MORTON BLACKWELL, CONSERVATIVE ACTIVIST: Many a conservative comes to Washington believing that it is a cesspool and before long concludes it's a hot tub.

CROWLEY: Abramoff's primo clients were Indian tribes looking to grease the skids in Washington for their profitable casinos. Abramoff bilked them out of millions.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Even in this town where huge sums are routinely paid as the price of political access, the figures are astonishing. But what the tribes actually receive for such astronomical sums is mystifying.

CROWLEY: While scamming some of his clients, Abramoff wined and dined Washington's elite at his two restaurants. He got clients to foot the bill to take lawmakers and staff to far-flung golf meccas, most notably Scotland's St. Andrews.

He escorted former Republican leader Tom DeLay to the Northern Marianas, a trip DeLay says he believed was a by-the-books fact finding mission. Abramoff leased four sky boxes in various sports arenas and dolled out the seats. He hired or promised to hire former Capitol Hill staffers and the wives of lawmakers.

Some of this is behavior indigenous to Washington and not necessarily illegal. The question is, what did he get in return? Ay, there's the rub.

CHELLIE PINGREE, COMMON CAUSE: There are so many nervous people. I think there are a lot of people who didn't have a very fun holiday, knowing that this could come up.

CROWLEY: As part of his plea deal, Abramoff promised to roll over, name names and dates and quid pro quo's. Ohio Congressman Bob Ney was on one of the Scotland trips, at a fund-raiser in an Abramoff sky box, got campaign contributions from Abramoff, Scanlon, and their clients.

In March 2002, Abramoff was looking for a legislative fix to help the Tigua Indians reopen their Texas casinos. And he apparently found it. "Just met with Ney," he e-mailed Scanlon. "We're f'ing gold. He's going to do Tigua. Call me."

This is the "Congressional Record." In March of 2000, it contained an insert from Ney. It criticized as corrupt the owner of a fleet of casino gambling boats. Abramoff hoped it would force the owner to sell his business to Abramoff.

Seven months later, Ney praises the fleet's new owner, Abramoff's partner. Ney supporters say he's made mistakes but points out Ney has always supported Indian tribe interest was led to believe the Scotland trip was legit and has never taken a bribe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You mention that you've been duped by Abramoff and Scanlon. Maybe explain that a little.

REP. BOB NEY (R), OHIO: I've already answered everything, I'm going to answer. There's proper venues to continue and we'll cooperate with anybody that wants to know about that.

CROWLEY: A source close to the probe tells CNN the Justice Department is investigating as many as two dozen people, including six lawmakers. This will not be pretty and it may be seismic.

PINGREE: Look at the numbers of members of Congress who are already starting to give back contributions, some of whom say they never even met Jack Abramoff, but they don't want to be anywhere near it.

CROWLEY: Jack Abramoff, raised in Beverly Hills, educated at Brandeis and Georgetown Law, is headed for the slammer. The question is whether he'll take anyone with him. Candy Crowley, CNN, Washington.


ZAHN: And from the looks of Candy's piece, it looks like the fallout has just begun.

Coming up next, can you find a more unlikely love story than this one?


CRAIG HATKOFF, CO-AUTHOR, "OWEN AND MZEE": It's almost surreal what's happened between these animals.


ZAHN: It may be surreal, but is it true love? Jeanne Moos investigates in just a minute.

And then a little bit later on, how is a best-selling author defending himself against allegations that his book isn't the whole truth? Wait until you see what Oprah has to say about all of this.


ZAHN: Well, whoever said love knows no bounds had it right. And if you need any proof at all, just wait until you see our next story. Here is Jeanne Moos on a storybook romance between two very unlikely lovers.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is an odd couple that makes that other odd couple seem bland. Maybe you've heard about the baby hippo that fell for an aging tortoise in Kenya. (on camera): I could see why the hippo would think this was a hippo.

HATKOFF: Large, round, gray.

MOOS (voice-over): Hippos do have poor eyesight. But even in hindsight, it is hard to believe that a year later these two are inseparable.

And here's how they got that way. Just over a year ago, when the tsunami's waves hit Kenya's shore, Owen the hippo was separated from his family. He had to be rescued by villagers using shark nets. They brought him to Heller Park Animal Preserve, where he made a beeline for Mzee the tortoise. Even though the tortoise...

HATKOFF: ... was hissing and rebuffing.

MOOS: But the hippo glommed on to the tortoise. The tortoise relented and their cozy photos made them a world-famous couple. Now Mzee and Owen sleep together. They wallow in the pond together. Owen tends to follow Mzee around like a lovesick dog.

A two-year-old hippo and a 130-year-old tortoise, their age difference puts even Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones to shame.

DR. PAULA KAHUMBU, GENERAL MANAGER, LAFARGE ECOSYSTEMS (voice- over): I've seen Mzee put his head into Owen's mouth and this is a hippopotamus that could crunch his head. But he doesn't, they're extremely trusting of each other.

MOOS: Dr. Paula Kahumbu is Heller Park's expert on the pair. They even munch on the same branch.

Back when they first got famous, a then 6-year-old girl in New York saw pictures of the two and asked her dad if they could write a book. Now, Scholastic is publishing it, the children's picture book.

CRAIG HATKOFF, CO-AUTHOR, "OWEN AND MZEE": It is almost surreal what's happened between these animals. And they're developing their own form of communication, which has really sort of baffled the scientists.

MOOS: We're not talking the usual snorts and moans. Dr. Kahumbu tells us the hippo and the tortoise now make noises at each other -- a high-pitched wailing sound.

(on camera): I don't suppose you could imitate the sound, could you?

KAHUMBU: It sounds a bit like this. Goes (MAKES NOISE).

MOOS (voice-over): Fans get fanatic. This box arrived for the author of the children's book.

HATKOFF: This is unbelievable. MOOS: A miniature diorama created by his mother's hairdresser.

There are plans for Owen to be introduced to a female hippo named Cleo, to teach him hippo behavior, because he's acting too much like a tortoise. When Owen wants Mzee to move, he nibbles on his foot.

Scientists say the amazing thing is that a cold-blooded reptile would warm up to a mammal.

Slow and steady doesn't just win the race. It wins the hippo.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


ZAHN: And one more thing, Owen's handlers say he eats tortoise food. He's not making hippo sounds anymore, and he's not nocturnal like a normal hippo. They just may want to speed up that introduction to that other hippo, Cleo.

Coming up, a best-selling book and author under fire. And a dramatic phone call.


OPRAH WINFREY: The underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me, and I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book.


ZAHN: So what else did Oprah Winfrey have to say about James Frey and his suddenly controversial best-selling book? Stay with us.


ZAHN: So you might have heard the best-selling author James Frey has broken his silence over whether parts of his hugely popular memoir are made up. "A Million Little Pieces" was the biggest-selling nonfiction book in the U.S. last year, and being selected for Oprah's Book Club no doubt had a lot to do with that success. Frey was on "LARRY KING LIVE" to defend himself last night, and he got an unexpected call of support from someone I think who is pretty familiar to all of you out there. Here is Kelly Wallace.


KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A surprise caller towards the end of Larry King's interview with controversial author James Frey.

LARRY KING, CNN ANCHOR: Are you there, my friend?

WINFREY: Hello, Larry, how are you?

KING: Hello, dear one, how are you doing? WALLACE: On the line, Oprah Winfrey.

WINFREY: Hi, James. hi, Lynne.


WALLACE: Her first comment since explosive charges that parts of Frey's memoir of addiction and rehab were more fiction than fact.

WINFREY: The underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me, and I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book, and will continue to read this book.

WALLACE: Winfrey seemed to stand solidly behind Frey and his book, "A Million Little Pieces," her October pick for her ever-so- powerful book club, but placed some of the blame on the publishing industry.

WINFREY: I am disappointed by this controversy surrounding "A Million Little Pieces," because I rely on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within, and also the authenticity of the work.

WALLACE: Frey, clearly gratified by Winfrey's support, had one message that he repeated over and over to Larry King.

FREY: To be honest, I still stand by the book as being the essential truth of my life. I'll stand by that idea until the day I die.

WALLACE: Regarding the allegations raised by TheSmokingGun investigative Web site that he fabricated key sections of the book, Frey says he has acknowledged embellishing some details, although there is no such disclaimer in his memoir.

KING: With the kind of incredible life you've had, why embellish anything?

FREY: I mean, I've acknowledged that there were embellishments in the book, you know, that I've changed things, that in certain cases things were toned up, in certain cases things were toned down.

WALLACE: Frey, whose mom joined him at the end of the show, says there is one lesson he's learned after intense scrutiny of his book.

FREY: I'll absolutely never write about myself again.

WALLACE: And the question now is, will this controversy hurt or help book sales?

Kelly Wallace, CNN, New York.


ZAHN: Well, I think you can guess which way that one is going to go.

Larry King has another big interview coming up just a few minutes from now, at the top of the hour: From prison, Erik Menendez tells his story. That is at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

And we're going to take a short break. And right now, though, take a little time-out to talk about some of stories we've been covering. A lot of you had some pretty strong opinions about a segment we ran last night on an older woman, and women in general, having sex with teenage boys -- at least the women we were examining last night -- and whether those women should face abuse charges for those relationships.

Well, one of the cases we featured involved a 37-year-old woman named Lisa Clark. She is married to a teenager, who she says pursued her. Here is what Sharon of Mesa, Arizona had to say about that.


SHARON: Regarding this 37-year-old woman and the 15-year-old boy having the sexual relationship, someone has to be the adult. The 15- year-old boy is under age, a child. And the adult takes responsibility. He may think he wants her, and just because he pursued her doesn't make it legal, doesn't make it right.


ZAHN: Well, not everybody agrees with that. This is what Khalil of Atlanta wrote to us. "I've always liked your show, but I find it preposterous that the older women in Wednesday's "Age of Consent" segment were so demonized. Those women in teaching positions should no doubt be fired, but why try them as criminals?"

So if you have something to say about the stories we've covered tonight, don't keep it to yourself. We love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 1-877-PAULA-NOW, or e-mail us at

Look forward to hearing from you. That wraps it up for all of us here tonight. Thanks so much for being with us. See you again tomorrow.


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