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Toxic Wastewater Leaking in Florida; Bryan Hughes is Interviewed about Texas Voting Legislation; Former Crown Prince Accused of Destabilizing Country. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired April 5, 2021 - 09:30   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Officials in Manatee County, Florida, are now racing to prevent the collapse of a reservoir holding millions of gallons of contaminated waste water. More than 300 homes were evacuated from an area just south of Tampa after that reservoir started leaking.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: The governor is warning this could be a, quote, catastrophic flood situation.

Our Bill Weir is live on the ground in Palmetto, Florida.

Unbelievable, Bill, how catastrophic this could be, if they do not have the best of luck.

BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. And it's just a matter of whether that catastrophe is going to come sooner or later because, one way or another, Florida has a huge problem with what are called gyp stacks. This is phosphogypsum, a radioactive byproduct of the fertilizer industry here in Florida and they just stack it in these huge 300, 400, 500 foot piles. The highest points in Florida are these gyp stacks. And on top of them are these ponds, acres -- acres big, holding this sort of tainted water, as you mentioned.

Now, the worst case since that berm of that -- of that gypsum is giving way, worst case is that thing goes, takes out two more gyp stacks nearby and sends all of that into the neighborhood just south of those Piney Point facilities. It's an old fertilizer plant that's just been going to seed (ph) for years and people have been worried about this sort of thing.

The best case is to avoid that break. That have to pump all of that sort of nutrient pollution, that water which contains phosphorous, nitrogen and ammonia into Tampa Bay. And after the red tides they've had in this state, which kills fish by the millions, and basically all that fertilizer creates an algae bloom which then sucks all the oxygen out of the water, kills the sea grass, and then the fish die as a result. That's been a plague on this state recently. A real plague for the tourism and real estate industries down here. So the best case is they get the hundreds of millions of gallons,

there's already been about 150 million gallons of that water which has gone into Tampa Bay. The rest of it may have to go in order to save that stack and stack it up. Right now, fingers are crossed, the water doesn't come down all at once.

Jim. Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Goodness, bill, just looking at those pictures there, the scale of it is alarming from the air.


SCIUTTO: We wish the folks there handling this the best of luck and great to have you there, Bill.


Thanks very much.

HARLOW: Thank you, Bill.

Up next, a Texas state senator who just wrote a new bill that limits voting. He joins us to discuss.


HARLOW: Welcome back.

New fallout in Texas over a pair of controversial election bills following the MLB pulling it's all-star game out of Atlanta over Georgia's new voting law. Two big Texas-based companies, American Airlines and Dell, are now fighting back at two bills that they say restrict voting in Texas. One of those bills, Senate Bill 7, passed last week. It does improve tracking of mail-in early ballots, but it also limits extended early voting hours. It prohibits drive-through voting. It bans ballot drop boxes.


It allows poll watchers to record some voters and it makes it illegal to proactively send mail-in ballot applications.

With me now is the author of the bill, Texas State Senator, Republican Bryan Hughes.

Senator, thank you for the time this morning.

BRYAN HUGHES (R), TEXAS STATE SENATE: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

HARLOW: You say this bill is necessary because it, in your words, makes it harder to cheat. But after 22,000 hours of digging, the Texas attorney general, Republican Ken Paxton, who endorsed you, didn't find a single case of voter fraud in your entire county in 2020.

So why did you even write this bill?

HUGHES: I can tell you about an ongoing investigation today in my district, in east Texas, arising from the 2018 election cycle. And we have criminal indictments there against the county commissioner and a number of other folks in the community. And it's based on mail ballot fraud.

There's -- if you look at the cases of ballot fraud around the country, mail ballots tend to be where most of the problems lie.

This is not a new problem. In 2017, Texas passed Senate Bill 5. It was a mail ballot security bill passed with bipartisan support. In 2019, I filed Senate Bill 9 last session. It passed the senate, didn't make it through the house. Just like every other area of the law, when we see problems, we try to improve them. So the system works better for everyone. And that's what this is about.

HARLOW: Just to be clear, you're not disputing the fact that again the Republican attorney general in Texas didn't find a single count of voter fraud in your country. In fact, he only found 16 minor cases across the entire state.

You say that this bill makes it easier to vote. Those are your words.

HUGHES: That's right.

HARLOW: But it strange credulity because it limits voting hours early from 24 hours to 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. maximum, it totally bans ballot drop boxes and it also completely bans drive-by voting. How does that make it easier to vote?

HUGHES: The bill says if are you in line to vote and the polls close, you must be allowed to vote. That wasn't clear before. If you're in line to vote, you will be allowed to vote.

HARLOW: It was -- it's been clear. Hold on, it's been clear since 1986. I went back and I read --

HUGHES: It's not been clear.

HARLOW: It -- it is part of Texas state election code since 1986. This has been codified.

HUGHES: It has not been clear that it --

HARLOW: A voter --

HUGHES: It's not been clear that it applies to --

HARLOW: Who has --

HUGHES: It's not been clear for early voting and election day. This makes it clear as it applies to early voting --

HARLOW: OK. HUGHES: Not just Election Day. You're referring to Election Day. As you know, more and more people vote early. This bill clarifies it for early voting.

HARLOW: It was never banned before. But that's not the question I asked you. I asked you, how does it make it easier to vote to ban people from using a drop box, from driving up to vote and also cutting the hours they can vote early in half? How does that make it easier for folks to vote?

HUGHES: Drive-through voting has never been allowed in Texas. It's not in the election code. We had one county in one election last year try it. And you know what we learned, based on testimony, we learned that there weren't poll watchers present to see if the law was being followed.

We also learned that now the numbers weren't reported accurately and there was testimony that inside a car with multiple people ballot machines being passed around. There's no secret ballot. There's no security. We want to have a secret ballot that people can trust.

HARLOW: Yes, but --

HUGHES: And that's why the default rule is to vote in the polling place where we have checks in place.

HARLOW: A secret ballot is fundamental to American democracy. You're right on that front. So then I wonder why your bill gives partisan poll watchers the right to video record people who are seeking assistance in trying to vote. That could mean people who are struggling with the English language and need clarification on something, people who are disabled and need help clarifying something, they can actually be video recorded now by poll watchers in your state. Why?

HUGHES: The poll watchers are there to watch the process. They're the eyes and ears of the public. They're from Republican Party, Democratic Party. Each candidate can have poll watchers there. That's nothing new. And the poll watchers are there to make sure the rules are followed.

The only time -- the only time that they could be allowed to watch a voter is if there's assistance going on and it looks like it might be violating the law. As you know, in Texas, if you have trouble with the language, or with reading the ballot, you can have assistance. That's normal. There's nothing illegal about that.


HUGHES: What we do -- what we do have a concern about is folks who are preying upon voters claiming to be helping when, in fact, they're not.

HARLOW: It raises concerns about voter intimidation. That's for sure.

Listen, your fellow state senator, your colleague in the state senate, Royce West of Dallas, who is a black man, pleaded with you about this bill. And here's what he said. Quote, passage of this bill makes clear that on these issues you have not understood our plight in this country.

Do you believe that America has a history of voter suppression of black Americans and should that history and concern from your fellow Americans, black Americans, not be considered here?

HUGHES: Of course that's considered and that's why, after the bill was filed, changes were made. After the hearing took place, changes were made at the suggestion of disability rights groups, of voting rights groups.


If you want to talk about the history of the Democratic Party and Jim Crow, that's fine. This is about elections in Texas based on our experience to make our system better for everyone.

HARLOW: I -- I read through all the crossouts in the bill and it does not address and was not changed some of the key concerns among black voters there.

Let me give you another example from your fellow state senator, Carol Alvarado. She points to analysis from the Harris County Election Board, who found that more than half of the votes that were counted of 127,000 in the 2020 election in Harris County that were drive-through voting, more than half of them were from black, Latino or Asian constituents.

You say every vote counts. But what about every voter? If you can't get the vote of every voter, how is that not discounting them?

HUGHES: Harris County is a great example. It's the only place where drive-through voting has ever been tried. It was created in one election last year, not provided for in the election code.

Look at where those drive-through voting places were allowed. In the largest Republican precinct, there were two spots. In the largest Democratic precinct, there were five spots. That Republican precinct has more population, more voters and it's larger, yet it had two locations compared to five in the Democratic Party.

HARLOW: But you're not answering my question. My -- my --

HUGHES: The point is -- the point is, the deck shouldn't be stacked against one party or the other.

HARLOW: My fundamental question is, your colleague in the state senate said that more than half of the folks in that big district that voted with drive-in voting were minorities and taking that away is going to hurt them. That's my question and that's exactly what Royce West is talking about.

HUGHES: If you want to talk about polling places, this bill says they're placed based on where the voters are.

HARLOW: You are --

HUGHES: What could be more fair than where the voters are located. I don't understand the argument with that. I asked Senator West and Senator Alvarado to give me a better measure than voting population, either one could suggest anything.

HARLOW: OK. It's about --

HUGHES: The polling places are for the voters. That's where they should be.

HARLOW: Look, you know that it's also about how they can vote. And banning the ability of different ways, easier ways for them to vote is -- is the crux of this year. And that's the question I'm asking you. I understand you don't want to answer it.

But I guess to circle back to the fundamental question of why.

HUGHES: In Texas --

HARLOW: So when you have the former attorney general, Bill Barr, when you have Trump-appointed federal judge after Trump-appointed federal judge, when you have Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Texas secretary of state's office, also a Republican secretary of state there, Mitch McConnell all saying there was no widespread voter fraud, why do you even need this?

HUGHES: So you say there's no widespread voter fraud. I hear that from a lot of Democrats. So there's no widespread fraud? How much fraud is acceptable? How much is too much?

HARLOW: Well, there were 16 --

HUGHES: Elections ought to be fair.

HARLOW: OK. We have the numbers.

HUGHES: They ought to be safe. They ought to be secure.

HARLOW: State Senator, we have the numbers. Sixteen minor voting fraud cases across the entire state of Texas. A pretty big state. Sixteen cases after 22,000 hours of digging.

Why is this necessary, especially given all of the concern from your constituents, AARP, it risks disentrancing older voters. The League of Women Voters, it increases barriers in urban areas to black and Hispanic voters and voters with disabilities.

Why do you need this?

HUGHES: I'm not sure what election cycle you're referring to. This bill is based on testimony from prosecutor, from election workers. And let me say, Democratic and Republican elected prosecutors, election workers.

HARLOW: 2020. HUGHES: This bill is not about 2020. This bill is about cleaning up

the Texas process.

In 2017, we passed an elections fraud reform bill with bipartisan support. 2019, I filed Senate Bill 9. It passed the senate. I realize there's a desire to drag us into this national conversation.


HUGHES: This bill is about Texas, making our processes better in Texas.


HUGHES: There is not about the 2020 election cycle.

HARLOW: OK. We have to leave it there, but this is about clarifying for people in your state who have and should have a fundamental right to cast their ballot. That's what this is about. It's not about a national conversation.

We welcome you back, state Senator Bryan Hughes. Thank you.

HUGHES: Thanks for having me. Thank you.

HARLOW: We'll be right back.



HARLOW: Well, Jordan's government is accusing former crown prince -- a former crown prince of plotting to destabilize the country, an accusation that has exposed a rift at the heart of the royal family. Hamzah is the half-brother of the country's ruler, that is King Abdullah II.

SCIUTTO: Well, the former crown prince says that he has been forced into isolation questioning why.

CNN's senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman following the latest developments.

And Bill -- Ben, this plot, I mean, it's almost medieval, right? I mean you've got a half-brother. You have allegations of foreign participation in this. What do we know of the facts at this point?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is really a palace intrigue on steroids, Jim and Poppy. What we know is that Saturday Prince Hamzah was put under house arrest and he has been accused, as of yesterday by the deputy prime minister, of joining with a former head of the royal court, who was also a former finance minister, and another member of the royal family, along with unspecified foreign entities of trying to undermine the stability and security of the country. No one at this point has mentioned a coup d'etat, but certainly there does seem to be some sort of foreign role here.


One -- this -- the former chief of the royal court most recently was an adviser to Mohamed bin Salmon, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. And it's come out that an Israeli businessman, currently resident in Europe, offered via text the wife the Prince Hamzah a private jet to fly her and her children out of the country until this storm passes.

Now, this is absolutely unheard of in Jordan where there have been spats among members of the royal family, but never quite this public. And it does appear that this intrigue, this washing of dirty laundry is only just beginning.

Jim. Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Yes. We should note that Biden administration officials are saying they stand with King Abdullah and the current government of Jordan.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: Ben Wedeman, good to have you there. I'm sure we'll have you back.

HARLOW: Ben, thank you so much for that reporting.

Well, just minutes from now, testimony will resume in the trial of Derek Chauvin. We will tell you who it looks like will take the stand, next.