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Former Defense Secretary Criticizes President Obama; Chris Christie Under Fire; Interview with Isiah Thomas; FTC Cracks Down on Deceptive Diet Ads

Aired January 8, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I don't know about you, but I'm picturing this like Tony Soprano kind of thing. Lovely bridge you got here. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The politics lead. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, he denied causing gridlock on the world's busiest bridge out of political revenge, but now today texts and e-mails show the scandal is a lot closer to the man in the driver's seat of Jersey politics than we knew. What will he do? And what's the fallout for this would-be presidential hopeful?

The sports lead. It was a bombshell report you saw right here on THE LEAD, colleges that make millions off their sports programs giving passing grades to athletes who couldn't even read their commitment letters. Now our guest this hour, former NBA star Isiah Zeke Thomas, says black student athletes in particular are getting the shaft.

And the money lead. The ad says sprinkle some of this on your food and lose 30 pounds just like that. But you're telling me it's not true? The government nailing so-called weight loss companies for false advertising. Are you using any of their products to keep that New Year's resolution?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the politics lead. Some pundits say that how Governor Chris Christie responds to this crisis today could determine whether or not he has a chance of being president. It all has to do with accusations of a political vendetta.

Of particular alarm for Christie supporter, this direct quote from one of his top aides to an executive at the Port Authority -- quote -- "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

That and other e-mails and texts obtained by CNN appear to tie Christie's administration to lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, the busiest bridge in the world, which connects Fort Lee, New Jersey, to New York City.

The September closures were blamed for days of massive traffic jams in Fort Lee. Let's say you're making your last-chance power drive on the Jersey Turnpike. Maybe you got a school bus full of screaming kids or you're driving an ambulance and you run into an epic traffic jam created, as the e-mail suggests, not because of a traffic study, but out of political spite.

Critics have said this was all retaliation against the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, A Democrat who did not endorse Christie's election bid. Christie has denied this. Earlier today after the e-mails came out, however, the governor canceled his only public event of the day where many had hoped he would explain these e-mails and texts. All the claims against his office were merely allegations until today.


TAPPER (voice-over): Traffic in New Jersey is rough on any given day, but it's a local story. Today, however, Garden State Gridlock is meriting national attention.

CNN has obtained seemingly damning e-mails and text messages from top aides to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, ones that seem to undermine his and his administration's previous explanations that there was nothing political in the closure of lanes on a major bridge in September 2013, closures that wreaked traffic havoc, hurting one particular town with a Democratic mayor, a mayor who had refused to endorse Christie, a Republican, for reelection.

JOHN WISNIEWSKI (D), NEW JERSEY STATE SENATOR: What we have seen today is a sad day for New Jersey. The documents that have been published are both shocking and outrageous.

TAPPER: New Jersey Democrats came out swinging this afternoon over what is now being called Bridge-gate.

From September 9 through 14, 2013, the George Washington Bridge connecting New York to New Jersey had three lanes closed without warning, causing major delays in Fort Lee. Democrats cried vendetta, but there was no evidence to back up that charge. And Christie scoffed at the notion of traffic as political retribution.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I actually was the guy working the cones out there. You really are not serious with that question.

TAPPER: Instead, New Jersey officials claimed that it had been a traffic study commissioned by the Port Authority.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why do you think they did it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not aware of any traffic study. I don't know why it was done.

TAPPER: But that story unraveled when Port Authority officials were subpoenaed by the state assembly last month.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And it directly violated our agency's primary responsibility to protect our customers and personnel.

TAPPER: CNN today obtained texts and e-mails that seemed to suggest the logjam may have, indeed, been caused by political retribution. Nearly a month before the bridge lane closures, Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, e-mailed David Wildstein, one of Christie's top appointees at the Port Authority. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," she wrote. "Got it," he said.

After Fort Lee was brought to a halt by the bridge lane closures, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich called the Port Authority to no avail. Kelly e-mailed Wildstein to ask the if anyone had called the mayor back. The response was this: "Radio silence. His name comes right after Mayor Fulop."

That's Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a Democrat who also didn't endorse Christie and who has since suggested that refusal came with a price, meetings canceled, legislation scrubbed.


TAPPER: I want to read perhaps the most damning exchange in a text message obtained by CNN.

Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, reached out to Wildstein saying: "Presently, we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into one only tollbooth. The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help, please. It's maddening" -- unquote.

Wildstein forwarded the plea to someone whose name has been redacted in these e-mails and texts. "Is it wrong that I'm smiling?" the person asks. "No," Wildstein responds. "I feel badly about the kids," the unknown person writes, "I guess." The response, Wildstein, "They are the children of Buono voters."

Now, that's a reference to Barbara Buono, Christie's then Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial election that the governor won handily in November.

The incoming speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly released a statement. Let me read part of it -- quote -- "Upon becoming assembly speaker next week, I plan to seek counsel and guidance from legal experts on how best to proceed, but I fully expect this investigation to continue into the next legislative session."

Joining me now is the man leading that investigation, Assembly Deputy Speaker and Transportation Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee Chair John Wisniewski.

Assemblyman Wisniewski, thanks for being here.

Christie's opponent, Barbara Buono, has reacted to the story, telling that -- quote -- "There's not even a scintilla of doubt that Christie is behind this."

But beyond the suspicions, do you have any evidence that Christie had anything to do with this or even knew about it?

WISNIEWSKI: Well, this is an administration that runs a very tight ship, and there are almost no decisions that are made of any consequence that do not run directly through the front office.

No one there is known for having their own portfolio or being a free agent. So it's really hard to imagine how an e-mail could come from the governor's deputy chief of staff saying it's time for traffic problems and not have the administration involved in this.

I mean, this governor said at a press conference, I'm not involved in traffic studies, yet there's an e-mail from one of his aides saying the governor himself approved the traffic study in another town. And so we see this as a hands-on governor who's involved in a lot of events that go on in his administration. They all have accountability to the front office. It's really hard to imagine how this doesn't go higher.

TAPPER: OK. So the answer is, no, there isn't any direct evidence, but you strongly suspect there is based on how Governor Christie works.



WISNIEWSKI: I don't have an e-mail that has -- right. I don't have an e-mail with the governor's name on it, but I find it hard to believe that this administration wasn't directly involved in orchestrating this.

TAPPER: You're holding a hearing tomorrow.

David Wildstein, who had been a political appointee to the Port Authority by Christie, he resigned in early December after this crisis, scandal, controversy, whatever you want to call it, started coming out in the press. He is expected to testify. What answers are you hoping to get from Wildstein tomorrow?

WISNIEWSKI: You know, very simply, this e-mail comes out of nowhere, August 13. What happened before then? Was there a meeting? Who did you meet with? What was the discussion and rationale for creating traffic problems in Fort Lee?

Who else in the administration where or the campaign was involved? We have seen lots of names that are connected to the administration in the e-mails. We have seen the name of the governor's chief press spokesperson, Michael Drewniak. We have seen the name of Maria Comella. We have seen the name of his chief counsel, Charlie McKenna.

We clearly know at least in terms of cleaning up after this event took place, lots of people in his administration, in his front office, were involved in this. And we need to ask the questions about who else was involved, what did they know, and how did this start.

TAPPER: For people who are not familiar with the scandal, and obviously Governor Christie, one of the reasons we're even doing this right now is because he's potentially going to run for president in 2016. Traffic may not seem like that big a deal to people given the kind of political scandals that we see all over the country. Certainly, New Jersey is not a place for the faint of heart. Why is this important?

WISNIEWSKI: Well, it's not about the traffic. The traffic was the consequence.

But it really is about an abuse of power. It's about an administration that does not take no for an answer, an administration that feels very comfortable in exacting political retribution. And we have seen here two very high-placed officials in the Christie administration abusing the authority that they were given to wreak havoc in a municipality, make children late for school, delay a police response to a missing child, delay a heart attack response.

That's not the kind of leadership that New Jersey needs and it's certainly not the kind of leadership the nation needs.

TAPPER: We haven't heard today from Governor Chris Christie. We have been calling and e-mailing them all day. They canceled an event that was set for today.

I want to play something he said back in December when asked about your investigation.


QUESTION: To what extent do you think there is partisan political gamesmanship being played here?

CHRISTIE: Well, I mean, inside the Statehouse, there's no doubt that there is.

I think, in the end, what it will be shown to be is just rank speculation from folks who want to play political games.


TAPPER: Now, Assemblyman, you're a Democrat. The two of you do not have a friendly relationship. Back in 2012, he criticized your connections to some political action committees. He said -- quote -- "I hope that Assemblyman Wisniewski is not using his power as the chairman of the committee to punish the Port Authority for not helping his political donors."

Can you see how some people might look at this and say this seems like a politically motivated investigation of a politically motivated act?

WISNIEWSKI: Well, let's look at the documents.

The documents speak for themselves. There's no governmental reason for Bridget Kelly to send an e-mail to David Wildstein saying there's time for traffic. There's no political -- or there's governmental reason for there to be an e-mail mocking the children being late for school. This clearly was a political operation using governmental resources. And it was done to exact retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee. For what purpose, we don't know, for not endorsing the governor, for not getting involved otherwise with the governor.

But there's no valid reason for this to have happened. There's no record, and we have seen thousands of pages of document -- there's no records that would suggest that there was a valid government reason. We see lots of communications about political retribution. We see lots of communication mocking the consequences of what this operation did.

And we see lots of communications in a desperate attempt to try to justify what happened. And so, you know, whatever the origins of the investigation, the facts speak for themselves. The governor's people got caught red-handed doing something they shouldn't do, inflicting retribution on a community that had no reason to expect it, and certainly did not deserve it. And now they are trying to find any reason to blame somebody else for this.

TAPPER: Assembly John Wisniewski, thank you so much for your time. We look forward to the hearing tomorrow.

And, of course, we have an open invitation to Governor Christie or any of his representatives to come on THE LEAD and talk about this, give the other side of the story, as always.

Coming up this hour THE LEAD: Our CNN investigation this week uncovered the shocking number of college athletes who are reading at elementary school levels. That prompted former NBA star Isiah Thomas to reach out to us and say, hey, there's even more to it than that. Isiah Thomas will join me next.

Later, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates didn't just take shots at President Obama in his new book. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden took some hits too. How might that play out if they battle each other in 2016?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Now, it's time for the sports lead.

It's a story that seems to have touched a nerve and not just among sports fans. Yesterday on THE LEAD, we shed some light on disturbing number of college athletes reading at an elementary school level. Correspondent Sara Ganim led CNN's effort to explore the problem, filing dozens of open-record requests.

And according to CNN's analysis, up to 18 percent of basketball and football students in many schools struggle with basic reading skills, even before they were accepted to college and some graduate without ever improving, mainly because the primary focus of their college years is on athletics, not academics. The NCAA responded to our findings by saying the number of poor readers is a small percentage compared to the overall total of its athletes but that didn't sit well with a lot of our viewers who sent us tweets expressing their outrage, among them, former basketball star Isiah Thomas, the two-time NBA champion who played with the Detroit Pistons for 13 years. Although he made a name for himself on the court, he said academics were always a priority in his family. It's something stress at in early age.

But Thomas says his story is more the exception than the rule. He tweeted me a link to an essay he wrote last year that focused on what he calls a crisis among black male athletes. The essay reads in part, "There is a 25 percent gap between the graduation rates of white and black basketball student/athletes. What this means is that many black men's basketball players are leaving college without the degree or requisite skills to embark upon a professional career, a price which only later down the road do students come to understand."

It's my pleasure right now to announce that joining us live -- I'm a little nervous here -- is NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas.

Zeke, thanks so much for being here. Thanks for reaching out. We appreciate it.

ISIAH THOMAS, NBA HALL OF FAMER: It is my pleasure and thank you for opening our eyes to this critical issue that, you know, is upon us right now.

TAPPER: Well, when you saw the story we ran yesterday on college athlete illiteracy, what most struck a chord with you?

THOMAS: Really just the under-preparedness that athletes come to college with. You know, we look our educational system and we say it's broken, particularly in poverty-stricken areas of our country. So a lot of our athletes, our student/athletes, are not prepared for the rigors of academic -- to have academic success on a lot of these major universities and college campuses.

TAPPER: It's not a surprise, of course, that so many of our high schools and grade schools are failing our students. I think the shock is that these colleges and universities make literally tens of millions of dollars off these kids and then allow them to graduate. Only 1.5 percent of them go on to become professional athletes but the rest go out there with careers who can barely read.

Do you think the problem with student/athletes slipping through the cracks has gotten better or worse since your days in college?

THOMAS: It's definitely gotten worse because as the money has continued to rise in athletics and the reward for winning has become so pricey, the student-athlete is really there only to be an athlete and not necessarily a student. He is there really to entertain the student body but not necessarily have access to an academic career.

You know, so his time is spent mainly on the athletic field and in the playing environment to entertain the students and also to make a lot of money for the universities. But --

TAPPER: That's interesting. I would think that it would have gotten better just because there's been so much more attention to the problem. But you're saying the money means it's gotten worse.

THOMAS: Yes, because the moneys that's awarded now for the athletic success, you know, it overrides the academic success that a student- athlete may have. You will receive more attention for winning an award or winning a championship than actually graduating from the university.

TAPPER: You're a former coach at Florida International University, and you say that you made sure your players were focused on academics. What do you think schools or even the NCAA should be doing to help make education more of a priority for college players?

THOMAS: Well, simply, you just have to value academic success more than you value athletic success. And just -- when I was at Indiana, coach Knight valued academic success. He graduated over 90 percent of his players when we were there. I graduated over 90 percent of my players when I was at FIU. And academically, that's where we placed the value at.

Now, athletically, can you have success? It all depends on the social environment that you're in. Right now, we are in a society that values athletic success more than it does academic success.

TAPPER: Finally, Zeke, I can't let you go, I'm sorry, without asking you --

THOMAS: I understand.

TAPPER: -- about your former NBA bad boys teammate Dennis Rodman, "The Worm", and his blossoming friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

Given what you know about Rodman, should any of us be surprised by his antics? Are you surprised?

THOMAS: Well, I think when we look at the situation, all of us would be much more comfortable if the State Department was involved in this. And if the State Department was involved in this diplomatic game, so to speak, then we would all feel a little more comfortable.

TAPPER: I don't think anybody could disagree with that.

Isiah Thomas, thank you so much. We hope you come back. It's been a pleasure having you on the show.

THOMAS: You're welcome. And thank you for having me.

TAPPER: Of course.

A pair of aces and the big hurt heading to Cooperstown. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and slugger Frank Thomas have been elected to the baseball Hall of Fame. Tom Glavine was a 300-game winner. His long-time Braves teammate Maddux won four straight Cy Young awards and was in many ways the polar opposite of the generation in which he played, one of the most cerebral pitchers of all time who dominated in the so- called steroids era.

Yet somehow simply being associated with the era kept him from being a unanimous choice.

Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza, two second-year candidates, well, they fell just short again this year.

Coming up next on THE LEAD, it sounds almost too good to be true -- losing weight without diet or exercise. Well, it is too good to be true. The diet products being called out by the government for lying to people, next.

Plus, he's played a murderous Baltimore drug dealer and one of the most beloved leaders in the world. So, is Idris Elba already preparing his best actor speech for the Golden Globes? My interview with the two-time nominee is ahead.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Now, it's time for the money lead.

Watch TV in the wee hours of the morning, right around the time those late-night munchies set in and you're bound to see an ad like this.


ANNOUNCER: Sensa, the amazing new clinically proving sensation that you sprinkle on to take the weight off. Whether you need to lose 10 pounds, 50 pounds, or more, now you can, without dieting.


TAPPER: Wow. More than 50 pounds without dieting?

Weight loss products promising amazing results without diet or exercise -- well, it sounds like an answer to prayer. After all, who wouldn't rather smooth a cream on their big tummy or sprinkle a powder on top of their pizza to drop a couple pant sizes versus actually sweating it out at the gym or not eating so much? In fact, why not try this diet plan while you're at it?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Introducing the Michael Phelps diet. It's the only diet that lets you eat whatever Michael Phelps eats, and as you can tell, it works wonders for me.


TAPPER: The sad part is the FTC, the Federal trade Commission, says some diet products on the market today are about just as effective as what Michael Phelps was pitching in his "SNL" sketch. The Federal Trade Commission fined four companies this week, Sensa, L'Occitane, Lean Spa and HCG Diet Direct, accused of making bogus weight loss promises in their ads that they have to pork over a total of $34 million to make up for it.

And joining me now, Mary Engle. She is the associate director of the division of advertising practices for the Federal Trade Commission.

Mary, thanks for being here.

So, what sparked this crackdown?

MARY ENGLE, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, DIV. OF ADVERTISING PRACTICES AT FTC: Well, we've been seeing bogus weight loss ad claims for a long time.

TAPPER: Forever.

ENGLE: Forever, basically, ever since the FTC has been around. But this time of year when people are looking to lose weight, it's a popular new year's resolution. We had a variety of different products being advertised -- cream, pills, drops. And we really wanted to send a message to both the advertisers that you can't make false (ph) claims of weight loss and to consumer to be wary of these kinds of plans.

TAPPER: And this is a big business, right? This is hundreds of millions of dollars.

ENGLE: It's a billion-dollar business.

TAPPER: A billion dollar business. So, one method some of these companies use to pitch their products was to rely on celebrity endorsements. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good friends don't judge. They encourage. They offer support. And I'm happy to say I found a good friend in Sensa.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Patty, you've lost 30 pounds. Was this hard for you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I could not believe how easy it was and how I didn't have to think.


TAPPER: We reached out to actress Octavia Spencer and reality star Patty Stanger to get their reaction to the FTC's actions. We haven't heard back.

But, Mary, you say even if these products worked for those actresses who were paid money to claim they worked for them, even if it actually worked, it doesn't matter, for them?

ENGLE: Right. I mean, individual people might have success with a product, and you don't know what else they were doing, what kind of diet they may have been on or how much exercise they may have been doing, and, of course, being motivated by payment helps, too.

But the issue is, did the company have really good evidence to back up the claims they made that it works not just for that particular person but for everybody?

TAPPER: So we want to read you the statements we got in reaction to this enforcement from the FTC. The makers of Sensa say, "We stand behind Sensa -- a leading lifestyle tool that helps customers engage in proper portion control without traditional dieting, stimulants or pills. Sensa products made a decision to settle with the FTC in order to focus on the core of our business: our customers."

Lean Spa's response, "It did not mislead costumers in its product claims or billing practices, was itself a victim of deceptive and fraudulent conduct by its marketing partners."

And L'Occitane says it has, quote, "implemented a set of even more rigorous policies and procedures that will guide future clinical testing and ensure that our marketing and advertising comply with FTC regulations and guidelines.

We did not receive any comment from HGC Direct.

Do these companies have to pull their products?

ENGLE: They don't have to pull their products. They can -- we're not banning the products, but we're banning is false or misleading claims for the products. So, if they have good scientific evidence to support a weight loss claim, then they can make that in the future.

TAPPER: Do these people believe that their products actually work or are they just snake oil salesmen?

ENGLE: Well, you know, I can't get into the minds of the sellers.

TAPPER: When you meet with them, do they really believe it or do you think these are like -- rub this paper diet and they're just making it up?

ENGLE: You know, in all cases they have some study that they claim supported their ads. The studies were really inadequate in some cases, the data are falsified or maybe one person got the result and they used that to make a whole ad campaign.

So, that's the problem. It's a huge gap between what the evidence is and what the ad claims are.

TAPPER: All right. Mary Engle of the FTC, thank you so much for being here. We appreciate it.

ENGLE: Thank you.