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At Least 16 Dead After Tornadoes; L.A. NAACP Reacts To Sterling Scandal; Players Want Sterling Disciplined; Congressman Hit with Federal Charges

Aired April 28, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, the clean-up is just beginning in parts of the south and Midwest after devastating storms leveled buildings, snapped trees, flipped tractor trailers on their sides. More severe weather forecast for this afternoon.

Also right now, the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 entering a new stage. It involves a huge expansion of the search area. That could take six to eight months to complete.

And right now, outrage is intensifying over the racist comments allegedly made by the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. The question now, what should the NBA do? What can the NBA do?

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We begin with powerful tornadoes ripping through the central and southern United States. At least 16 people are dead and 100 or more have been treated at hospitals. Residents were warned about these tornadoes, but they were still stunned by the intensity. Listen to what one witness found off a highway in Vilonia, Arkansas.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What did you see as you guys were some of the first on the scene after the destruction hit?

JAMES BRYANT: Well, it was a -- it was a crazy scene when we pulled up. We knew there would be damage because we did see the tornado on the ground. We knew it would cross the freeway. We knew there would be some damage but we weren't really prepared for the scene that we were about to roll up to. This is some really, really bad damage. There were cars flipped everywhere. There were people screaming. It was -- it was a really tough scene. It was a good thing that there were a lot of people around to help, because it was a tough scene.


BLITZER: This is what it looks like in Mayflower, Arkansas, National Guard troops and sniffer dogs are out. They're looking for anyone alive in the rubble.

And this incredible video was shot by a storm chaser as a massive funnel cloud began building in Pleasanton, Kansas.

Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri, they were also hit but Arkansas got the worst of it. We're getting a clearer picture of the devastation. The town Vilonia, once again, in shambles right now.

Chad Myers is nearby in Mayflower. Chad, people are -- still haven't been able to return to their own neighborhoods. How are they holding up?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, they're making piles, the ones that are back to the neighborhoods, piles of what to keep and what to throw away. And that sorting is going on here at Mayflower RV. And it was an RV park but people actually did live here. The pile back there, that's the throwaway pile. This is literally all that's left from the family that lived right here behind me. So, you know, I know it's only stuff, and many of these people did lose loved ones, friends and also lost pets in this. And this is the sad part about this storm. But the people behind me, they don't even know the people that live here. But they're here to help. They're here to help because it's friends helping friends, neighboring helping neighbors, volunteers helping people they don't even know try to pick up the pieces.

Something I'm not a big fan of right now, though, Wolf, is that my coat is off. It's warming up here. All morning, it was cold and that was great. There's a chance for more weather coming in this afternoon right here in this devastated area. The people picking up, they don't need lightning. Even if it's not a tornado, they don't need thunder. They don't need rain to try to help this cleanup. And that's certainly a possibility now that I see blue sky and sunshine here. It's called dry slot convection. It's not a -- not a common event but it can happen when we have such a vigorous storm system like we have today.

BLITZER: Chad, I take it this is still considered a search and rescue operation with power lines down, serious safety concerns all around the area. Do officials think they can find more people alive?

MYERS: I think they do. We know that there are people missing because the National Guard has been flying their helicopters very low over that tree line. You can see how the trees are just twisted apart, the bark gone from the trees, just stripped from the tree itself. And that's where the National Guard has been flying very low, just 10 feet off the tree tops, with men looking down from the helicopters, searching for anything they can find there. This is the hardest hit of the initial area. It touched down about 10 miles to our west, hit Mayflower right back over here. It came across the highway and then continued probably another 30 miles, Wolf.

So, if you think about a half mile wide tornado, it may be more in some spots. We don't know that it's more. We at least know that it's at least a half mile because that's what we have here. And a 30-mile swath of that, that's 15 square miles to search. And that's a big area. That's about the third of the size of the MH 370 search with the Bluefin 21. I know there's a lot people and there's not just one Bluefin. But think of the size of that search area and that people are injured or they're waiting to be rescued in collapsed buildings because there are still many of them.

BLITZER: Chad, we'll stay in close touch with you. Thank you. It's certainly a familiar nightmare --

MYERS: You're welcome.

BLITZER: -- for the residents of Vilonia. That's just north of Little Rock. Sunday's twister demolished some of the same homes that were just rebuild after a tornado hit the town three years ago almost to the day. Vilonia and Mayflower, they're both in the hard-hit Faulkner County area. David Hogue is Faulkner County's Public Information Officer. He took these pictures and we're going to show them to you. The pictures we just saw. Some more pictures.

He's joining us on the phone right now from Vilonia. David, thank you so much for joining us. Our hearts go out to all your residents there. Tell us about the rescue efforts. What's the -- but, David, hold on for a moment. Hold on for a moment, David. I'm going to get you in a moment but I just want to go to Los Angeles. A very different story we're following. This is a news conference. The NAACP L.A. chapter speaking about the L.A. Clippers owner, Donald Sterling. I want to hear what they have to say. They were going to offer him an award but they're now holding back.

LEON JENKINS, PRESIDENT, LOS ANGELES NAACP: -- political, educational and social and economic equality, the rights of persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination. The revelation that Mr. Sterling may have made comments in a phone conversation that was reminiscent of the ugly time in American history that contained elements of segregation and racial discrimination demands that the Los Angeles NAACP intention to honor Mr. Sterling for lifetime body of work must be withdrawn and the donation that he's given to the Los Angeles NAACP will be returned. There is a personal economic and social price that Mr. Sterling must pay for his attempt to turn back the clock on race relations. If these statements are not who Mr. Sterling is, then he should spend a sufficient amount of time that's necessary for an African-American community to prove that he is not the person those words portray him to be or suggest he may be. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Jenkins, how much money -- how much money did he give the NAACP and what is the standard for be -- for receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award? Those two questions for you.

JENKINS: First thing I want to say, we're going to have no questions -- the first thing we're going to do is we're going to allow you to have one question. Now, which one do you want me to answer first?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. OK, this was the first one. How much money did Donald Sterling give to the NAACP?

JENKINS: It was not a significant amount of money.


JENKINS: I'm not going to tell you the amount but it --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why not? JENKINS: Because I just said it. It's an insignificant amount of money, and we're going to return it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Given Mr. Sterling's track record as a landlord, particularly among African-Americans, given the Elgin Baylor Lawsuit, why was the NAACP honoring him?

JENKINS: Well, the first thing is that when the NAACP found out about the lawsuits, the NAACP called Mr. Sterling up and said, if there is any of the allegations in that lawsuit that is true, you need to pay those people. You need to may amends. And that case was settled.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sir, do you believe that it is the voice of Donald Sterling on that audio recording?

JENKINS: I don't know. I -- you know, I honestly don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) rescind this honor if it's still up in the air?

JENKINS: Well, the reason that we're doing it, because there is some things that happens that you have to take immediate actions. Now, this is one of these times that we can't wait a week or two and especially given the fact that our Freedom Fund dinner is two weeks away. We have to make preparations. We're getting our journal -- souvenir journal together. And we have to make decisions. And it's a decision that we'd rather err on the side of caution than to do something with advance knowledge that it may be harmful to what we represent.


JENKINS: Hold on. We're going to allow everybody to ask a question. Now, if you ask one question, you don't get a chance to ask a second one. All right?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What was the criteria used to nominate Mr. Sterling for this recognition?

JENKINS: This year. Well, what we do, we look at the body of work that he's done. And what -- and what we specifically looked at, we looked at all of the sports franchises in L.A., the Dodgers, the Lakers, even the Angels, the Red Wings and the Ducks. And we look at how involved all these organizations are in the community. The Mr. Sterling organization has, on a consistent basis, brought in numerous minorities and inner city kids to games. Almost every game, there is a section where there are young people there. He also has, over the years we looked at, contributed to a lot of minority charities, including the NAACP. So, we looked at comparing that with all of the other L.A. franchises. His organization gave more money to the community, to the minority community, than the others.


JENKINS: Hold up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, when he approached you, when his -- this money started to come in, --

JENKINS: What money?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The contributions to the NAACP to the (INAUDIBLE) Donald Sterling. When does someone like Mr. Sterling's reputation suggest that he is -- when does that sort of become so disreputable that it sort of sullies what the NAACP is (INAUDIBLE)?

JENKINS: We don't deal in rumors, guy. If you got specific facts, we willing to listen to them. But rumors about someone's character, it's not something that we deal with. We deal with the actual character of the person as we see it and that's displayed. So, if there's rumors and stuff, we don't -- that's not a factor in our decision.


JENKINS: Yes, hold on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This overall news is not only talking about (INAUDIBLE) here in L.A. but just nationwide. How would you explain how detrimental you see these comments?

JENKINS: Oh, on a scale of one to 10, 11. If you look at the content -- and the one thing you do have to consider is that it was a private conversation, but notwithstanding that fact. The words used were very Jim Crow-ish. It goes back to a segregation system and a time that nobody in America is proud of. And I think when you say things like that, you have to pay a price for those kinds of things. You have to demonstrate, if it's possible, that that's not who you are. So, it was devastating. It's off the scale. Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have a question. Back in 2009, Mr. Sterling was not honored with the (INAUDIBLE.) Any plans to (INAUDIBLE) that as well now that this has come out?

JENKINS: No, he was not -- it was -- I believe that was the Humanitarian Award and that was an award or a decision that I inherited. The prior president made that commitment and I just honored it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you clarify --

JENKINS: Hold up. I gave you -- hold up. It has to be -- it has to be somebody that has not spoken. And I got to look in the back. Let me look in the back. Yes, young lady?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Has anyone from the NAACP reached out to Mr. Sterling? If not, any plans to do so in the future?

JENKINS: At some point in time, the Los Angeles branch will sit down with him and try to discuss and discern what really happened. Because at this point -- one other person made a good point. You know, it had not been proven yet. And at some point when there has been some proof, I think that would be a legitimate time for the NAACP to sit down Mr. Sterling and try to work out how and why he did what he did and what is he going to do in the future?


JENKINS: Well, the -- but I'm going to ask that one because it's biblical. God teaches us to forgive. And the way I look at it, after a sustained period of just proof to the African-American community that those words don't really reflect his heart, I think there's room for forgiveness. I wouldn't be a Christian if I said there wasn't. So. In the back there.

BLITZER: All right, so that's Leon Jenkins, the president the NAACP Los Angeles chapter, offering his thoughts on what's going on. Clearly, he's no longer going to get this Lifetime Achievement Award in a couple weeks from the NAACP L.A. chapter.

Let's bring in Rachel Nichols, she's the host of CNN's "UNGUARDED." She covers sports for us. Rachel, what do you -- this is obviously a huge embarrassment for the NAACP chapter in Los Angeles. Give us your immediate reaction to what you just heard Leon Jenkins say.

RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN HOST, "UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS": Yes, I find that press conference puzzling. I find the fact that the award was going to be given, in general, puzzling. Yesterday, this past weekend, this is not the first time that we've heard that Donald Sterling might not have good feelings towards minorities. This man has one of the worst track records of any public figure in sports when dealing with minorities. He's had two U.S. Department of Justice lawsuits against him in relation to the apartment buildings that he owned and discrimination over the fact that he was shown not to want to rent to black people, not to want to rent to Hispanics. Instead of fighting those Justice Department lawsuits, he settled out both of them for record amounts, huge amounts, what was a record at the time.

So, this is a guy who was also sued by one of the greatest players in NBA history, Elgin Baylor, an 11-time all-star, who then went and worked for Donald Sterling and eventually sued him personally for racial discrimination. How would they want to give a guy like that a Lifetime Achievement Award before any of these recordings came out is beyond me and how you can sit up there today and justify it is also beyond me. But, hey, I'm glad at least now he will not be getting that award.

BLITZER: I want you to listen, Rachel, to what Kevin Johnson, former NBA great, now the mayor of Sacramento. He's speaking as a representative. He's been asked by the players union, the NBA Player's Union, to come in and help out with this issue. Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, asked him to get involved as well. Listen to what the mayor told Chris Cuomo earlier today on "New Day."


MAYOR KEVIN JOHNSON, SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA: This is a defining moment for the league. And, for me, when I think about Commissioner Silver, he's got to make sure that the players are represented and that's taking place. He's got to do something that is very decisive and (INAUDIBLE) as far as he possibly can take it. It's got to make a statement. And ultimately for us, as players, we want to make sure, is there something within his powers that allows him to say this owner is not fit to be owner of a team. And if that's not the case, then we need to have ongoing discussions because we, as players, we have character clauses in our agreements. We've got to make sure there's two-way accountability. And certainly owners need to be held to the same standard.


BLITZER: As you know, Rachel, the commissioner can only do what his boss, the owners, of the NBA teams, allow him to do. What can the NBA do right now to punish Sterling?

NICHOLS: Well, it's a little bit complicated because the constitution that governs those things inside the workings of the NBA ownership agreements, those aren't public. Those are private documents. We do know that it would probably be very hard for Adam Silver to force Donald Sterling out, to force him to sell. However, he does have fines available to him, he does have suspensions available to him, he could ostensibly suspend him indefinitely from day-to-day operations of the team, and the idea would be to make it so uncomfortable for him and to have sponsors not contribute, which we've already started to see sponsors of the Clippers start to suspend their business dealings, that Donald Sterling finally decides, you know what, it's in my best interest to sell.

That's basically what happened with former Reds owner Marge Schott in baseball. She was suspended multiple times for a couple of years there and then basically baseball said to her, we're going to keep indefinitely suspending you. It's in your best interest, it's in the team's best interest for you to sell. That could happen with Donald Sterling. But, hey, this is not a guy who has a history of going quietly into the good night. He is a very litigious guy. So part of the caution we've seen on the part of the NBA so far has been by necessity. He could turn around and sue them. So it's a very delicate balance.

You've also got the internal politics, Wolf, that are so interesting because we've seen a few owners come out and express some outrage. However, how much power, as you say, are they going to give Adam Silver, because in this moment, there's a lot of justification with this owner. But if they turn around and give Adam Silver the power to basically cast any one of them out of the league, there's a spirit of cronyism among ownership of any sports teams in this country and there's going to be some of these older owners who say, wait, my views might not be so popular too. Am I going to be next? So there's a lot to balance here.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Rachel, because we're out of time, but you're in Charlotte right now. The Bobcats are playing tonight in the NBA playoffs. The owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, Michael Jordan. He issued a statement, but has he said anything else since then?

NICHOLS: No. I mean he was very strong in his statement talking about being disgusted both as an owner and as a former player. And again, that's where this is going to get interesting. You have younger owners like Michael Jordan who may make this push and say, hey, we've got to change some of the constitution and the charter so we can force guys out if they have views like this.

We did see with Roger Goodell and the NFL him use the opportunity when there were a lot of player arrests and bad behavior going on, he basically did a power grab. He widened his responsibilities. He created a situation where he was both judge and jury and the appeals court for player punishment. And he had the power to do that because of this wave of public opinion. There might be enough of a wave of a public opinion right now for Adam Silver to grab similar power within the NBA and owner powers structure. It's going to be fascinating how it plays out. But you can bet Donald Sterling will not be happy at the end of it.

BLITZER: A huge challenge for the commissioner, Adam Silver. He just took over from David Stern on February 1st and now he's got this huge, huge issue right on the top of his agenda.

Rachel, thanks very much. We'll have much more on this story coming up later this hour.

There's other developing news we're following right now, including a United States congressman, Michael Grimm. He has just spoken to reporters, defending himself after surrendering to the FBI earlier today. He's just been indicted. We'll tell you what he had to say.


BLITZER: A two-term New York City congressman is facing a slew of federal charges today. Republican Michael Grimm surrendered to the FBI this morning, now facing a 20-count indictment related to his ownership of a Manhattan restaurant.


LORETTA LYNCH, U.S. ATTY., EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: We're here to announce the unsealing of a 20-count indictment against Michael Grimm, charging him with obstructing and impeding IRS functions, conspiracy to defraud the United States, causing false tax returns to be filed, mail fraud, wire fraud, health care fraud, perjury, obstruction of an official proceeding and the hiring of undocumented workers. These charges stem from Michael Grimm's role in managing a restaurant that he owned and operated from 2007 to 2010.


BLITZER: Only moments ago, the congressman defended himself.


REP. MICHAEL GRIMM (R), NEW YORK: I've grown to know and love most of my constituents. And I think they've grown to know and love me. I didn't abandon them. They're not going to abandon me. Instead, when things got tough, what did I do? I went to work. I got to work. The proof is there. That's irrefutable.

When Super Storm Sandy hit, relentlessly I gave it my heart and soul to secure $60 billion to help people rebuild their lives. Then we find out that flood insurance rates are pushing hard-working families out their home. And when all the political experts and insiders said it will never get done, my bill was signed by the president to help them, to relieve them.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She's been following this story for us.

I take it this congressman is going to still run for re-election despite this indictment, is that right?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's what he said in that press conference that just happened moments ago. He said he's going to get back to work and he also said that he's got an election to go forward with.

Of course, he has already been in a very tough re-election campaign because of just the fact of where his district is. He is the only Republican from New York City who is already one that Democrats were hoping to turn over, and even more so right now.

But let me just go back to the defiance in his press conference. It was really remarkable. And this is for somebody who was charged with a lot more than even those who thought he would be in trouble would be charged with, this 20-count indictment. He says it's a political witch-hunt, it's a vendetta against him. But the fact of the matter is, he still has, you know, to deal with the politics back in Washington.

And it's noteworthy, Wolf, that we have heard nothing yet, nothing from House Republican leaders, the leaders in his own party. We knew that this was going to happen as of Friday. So they've had three days to react. We don't know if there's going to be any ramifications for him. Their -- according to our reporting, our Deirdra Walsh, our congressional producer, was pointing out that there is precedent for somebody facing charges like this to be removed from his committee assignments and this particular congressman sits on the Financial Services Committee. So it will be very interesting to see what his fellow Republican -- or his own Republican leaders say about the way that they're going to deal with him, given the fact that this -- these are some very, very serious charges. And nothing to do with his current job in Congress, but certainly a lot to do with allegations of breaking the law in more ways than one.

BLITZER: But, Dana, you know this and I know this, the House speaker, John Boehner, he's got very little tolerance for fellow Republicans who get involved in these alleged activities. He's made sure others, other Republicans who have gotten in trouble, whether for extramarital affairs or what else, he gets rid of them pretty quickly. I suspect he's going to be pretty firm, when all is said and done, with Congressman Grimm. But maybe I'm wrong. BASH: In terms of the way John Boehner tends to personally like to deal with these issues, no question, you're absolutely right, he's got no tolerance. But he might be limited in what he can do, if Michael Grimm is determined to not only stay in his seat but run for re- election, as he just said he was.

I mentioned the committee assignment. Those are tools that the Republican leadership, they have at their disposal. But there's another interesting wrinkle that's going on here, which is that Grimm, according to New York law, which apparently is very complicated and pretty strict, he -- his name will be on the ballot. So even if Republican leaders want to try to get rid of him and run somebody else for his seat, which I said - as I said, is going to be already a tough race in that district, according to New York law, the only way that they can get him off of the ballot at this point is by running him as a judge for the court in New York or if he moves out of the district or if he passes away. Those are the only rules.

Still, given how strict that is, or even though it's so strict, I should say, my understanding is that there are activity discussions going on still in the Republican Party to try to get him off the ballot. So this is something that Republicans, on a political level in particular, are not taking lightly despite the fact that publicly at least in New York state they are defending him and his party, saying that they have to let the justice system go forward. So this is certainly not an easy thing for Republican leaders, both in terms of just basic, you know, the way they reprimand him or in terms of just the raw politics.

BLITZER: We'll see what the speaker does in this case. All right, Dana, thanks very much.

Still to come, we're going to go back to our top story, the tornadoes ripping through the central and southern parts of the United States. One Arkansas town has now been hit twice in three years. We'll have a live report. That's coming up.