February 24, 2009

Same ol' pork barrel congress

Posted: 02:19 PM ET

pv_16959_00472On the same day the President called on the government to undergo fiscal restraint, Congress unveiled a bill revealing where all those earmarks have been hiding. The pork-laden omnibus catch-all, held over from last year, contains no less than 8,570 earmarks.

The pork projects are still being deciphered by various watchdog groups, and Republicans are railing at the fact that the Congressional leadership seems to have violated its transparency rules by jamming these all in a last minute bill, but a quick view has me scratching my head in disbelief at both parties.

After two years of criticism aimed at pork barrel spending, the defiant members of Congress are unabashedly asking for more. Republicans and Democrats alike are looking for taxpayer dollars for projects no one could call necessary. Like what? David Obey, the House Appropriations Chair, wants to rebuild a Carnegie library building in Medford, Wisconsin, and he wants to reconstruct "Historic Lighthouses" in the Apostle Island National Lakeshore.(Historic lighthouse means no one uses them anymore, they are simply nice looking relics)

Nancy Pelosi wants money for Angels Island State Park for a center to research genealogy. A Republican, Robert Aderholt of Alabama, wants $47,500 federal taxpayer dollars to build a perimeter fence around the Rountree Airport to keep the animals away. Rountree airport listed a whopping 14 aircraft based there in 2008. There is not a single air taxi or air carrier that uses this dinky little one runway airstrip. But the request pales in comparison with an old favorite up in Alaska that simply won't go away. Akutan is a tiny island off Alaska that has a seasonal fish processing factory.

The owners of the factory gave money to now disgraced and ousted Senator Ted Stevens. We reported on Stevens' earmark request last year. This year, Stevens is gone but Akutan airport is back. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski wants you and I to spend $1-point-2 million dollars on the Akutan airport. Airports are a favorite of money. Another favorite of mine is Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a true pro at earmarking bills. If Senator Byrd wants money for airports in West Virginia, he doesn't waste time explaining why. His earmark request in the transportation portion of the bill: $4,275,000 dollars. The explainer: "Airport improvement statewide." Effectively, just give me the money and West Virginia will determine where to spend it.

 Last year I interviewed a somber, somewhat dejected Republican Senate veteran Orrin Hatch. When I asked him about earmarks and federal spending, he simply shook his head saying the arrogance of both sides of the aisle is quite frankly outrageous and depressing.

I'd like to know if somewhere in the White House our new President who promised change and hope, isn't shaking his head too. So how can you do your own investigative reporting to find your own Senate or Congressional pork? First, open up the House Appropriations committee link below.

Here's the list 

This site will display the Omnibus bill. Each individual portion of the bill contains a segment labeled "statement". This is the center of all pork. Scroll down to read them all. Or, if you would like to search for a specific Representative or Senate request, hit control-f, then type in the name of the Senator or Member of Congress you are looking for.

If you opened the "statement" for the "transportation" section of the bill and searched "Murkowski", you would find the money being requested for Akutan airport by Sen. Lisa Murkowski. I is not easy...but remember, just a few years ago all we got was a big stack of papers with no names attached. Happy hunting!

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Special Investigations Unit

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February 23, 2009

Journey for Change: February

Posted: 05:27 PM ET

Editor’s Note: Thirty kids, ages 12 to 16, from Bushwick, Brooklyn, were chosen to participate in “Journey for Change,” a youth empowerment program created by Malaak Compton-Rock. In early August they traveled to South Africa with Compton-Rock and CNN Anchor Soledad O’Brien. The group returned to the U.S. on August 13.  Since their return, they’ve been fundraising and doing service project as “Global Ambassadors” for “Journey for Change.”   For three days in late December they volunteered at several locations around Brooklyn: a daycare center, a soup kitchen, an abused children center, and a homeless shelter. They also picked up garbage in the streets of Bushwick.   All of this followed a November trip to Washington, D.C. where, among other things, they met with Congresswoman Maxine Waters.  In late spring they’re traveling to New Orleans to help rebuild homes.  We’ve asked them to share their thoughts and experiences by blogging.  In July, the group’s journey will be featured in Black in America 2, a CNN Presents documentary hosted by Soledad O’Brien.


Some of the young women from Journey for Change. Front Row (left to right): Yolaine Calixte, Sadara Lewis. Back Row: Mariah Ralph, Jenee Lawson, Sayris Pallares, Queen Clyde, Imaan Williams.


As a Journey for Change Global Ambassador, it has been an honor to serve others globally and locally.  My mom and dad always remind me that we are living for the sake of others. I have learned the true meaning of the word compassion.  There are many people who perform acts of kindness to feel better about themselves or just to say that they have done a good deed for the day.  That's not compassion.  We do acts of kindness because we see a need and want to see that the need is met.  That is true compassion and I think that is what Journey for Change is all about.  I am grateful for the opportunity to serve our brothers and sisters at home and abroad.

–Joshua Hall, 15


Hello! My name is Queen Clyde. I am a Global Ambassador from the group Journey for Change. We went to South Africa and helped orphans and grannies in need. We also went to Washington D.C. and met Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Senator Chuck Schumer's aid.  I also want to talk about our new president, Barack Obama. It’s so great to have a Black president. But you can tell he won't use that to his advantage. I know this because not once during his campaign did he say you should vote for me because I’m Black. He is truly a man of knowledge and patience. I truly think he will make this world a better place.

–Queen Clyde, 13


Hi my name is Mariah C Ralph. I am 13 years old. I’ve been doing community service since I was 6  years old. I encourage people to do community service because it gives you this feeling… I can’t explain it. When you do community service for so long it becomes a natural habit. It’s going on 8 years that I’ve been doing community service in Manhattan. I love the thought of helping people who really need it. The most exciting community service or global service was when I went to South Africa. When we went shopping for that family who didn’t have anything I felt so good.  I felt even better when I saw the grandmother’s face when we gave her the stuff.  The best type of community service is when you go to orphanages and you know they haven’t been held in a while. To hold them and feel them grasp back is outstandingly breathtaking.  They call you mommy because they don’t know any better and when you put them down because you have to leave it’s heart breaking. So I encourage community service because there are people out there who need more than just the latest phone.  There are people who actually don’t need the newest pair of sneakers, but need a pair of sneakers.  After I came back from South Africa I realized that I don’t need anything besides a roof over my head for shelter, people who love me, and food and water to survive. 

–Mariah Ralph, 13



On this upcoming trip to New Orleans, I really expect for myself to look through other peoples’ perspective of life. When I wake up in the morning, I don't realize that I have a gracious life to attend to, compared to other people in this world. I could be now working at the age of 12, to care for my family, instead of worrying about my education. Sacrificing my meals almost everyday, to pay for my rent that is three months over due .Sitting down on the sidewalk because I have no bright future ahead of me. I want to catch myself from speeding my age to the point that my childhood has basically faded away as nothing. I'm starting to reflect and realize that twelve years has almost ended, and its time to begin a fresh year of teen hood. I remember at the age of seven thinking about what it would be like to be 18, basically holding the key to the rest of my life. When I go to New Orleans I would like to experience myself living as almost similar to a god, helping other people to become comforted and look forward to having a better life.

–Sydney Smart, 12


I feel so happy about Barack Obama.  I wish I was 18 years old so that I could have voted in the election.  He is going to change the country.  I want him to get us out of this economic crisis because too many people are losing their jobs.  I love Michelle Obama, too.  She is a good First Lady.  It's amazing to see the whole family.  And it looks like they are all supporting each other.  Journey for Change is a life-changing experience.  There are only 30 kids in the world who have had this experience and I am one of them.  I am so grateful.

–Yolaine Calixte, 17


The election of President Obama shows us that Black people can do anything and that everything is possible.  It also shows that people are not looking at color.  It is also good that he was elected because he is trying to end the war and help the economy.  Being a part of Journey for Change is really good for me.  I think it will open doors down the road.  The program has taught me to change myself and give back to my community.

–Jeremy Baker, 15


On January 20, Barack Obama was sworn in and was officially President. Words cannot even explain how I felt. I was nervous and excited at the same time. It feels good to have a Black president, but not only because of his race. Barack Obama is such an intelligent man. He cares about us and this country. When he walked outside down the steps of the U.S Capitol my heart started to pound faster as I realized that it was real. The swearing in took place at 12:00 P.M. I was so anxious for them to announce that he was officially president. When they did I started to cry and scream with my friends. I knew that God was going to send an angel to help us and his name is Barack Obama, our 44th president of the United States. I love this man with all of my heart. His wife is a very educated and beautiful Black woman and his kids are so pretty and raised well. He has done a terrific job, but his real work starts now. I wish my President, Barack Obama all the best and good luck with everything.
 –Jenee Lawson, 15






Filed under: BIA2 • Journey for Change • Soledad OBrien

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Journey for Change: March

Posted: 11:20 AM ET
Editor’s Note: Thirty kids, ages 12 to 16, from Bushwick, Brooklyn, were chosen to participate in "Journey for Change," a youth empowerment program created by Malaak Compton-Rock. In early August the group traveled to South Africa with Compton-Rock and CNN Anchor Soledad O’Brien. Since returning to the U.S., they’ve been hosting fundraisers and doing community service projects as "Global Ambassadors" for "Journey for Change."  In March, Compton-Rock took the group to see the Oscar winning film, Slumdog Millionaire. She also asked the kids to blog about where they see themselves in the future. In July, the group’s journey will be featured in Black in America 2, a CNN Presents documentary hosted by Soledad O’Brien.

Journey for Change team, August 2008 in South Africa

Five years from now I will be 18 heading on to college. What my plan is to do is to finish up junior high, reach my goal of going to Townsend Harris High School or to Stuyvesant High School. Then I want to go to Temple University or even better. With participating in this program and excelling in school I want to reach my dreams and even go beyond. I know I could do it but it requires a bunch of hard effort from my self and sacrificing time for studying. If God sends me a message that I will make it, I will be willing to do it to pursue my dreams. After college I want to work in the medical field or in the law field and actually have a passion for it.

-Sydney Smart, 13

In five years I see myself in a specialized high school. Not just any specialized high school, but an engineering high school. I am also going to have very high grades and keep them up. I also see myself with a crazy, hot, cherry red car. In ten years I see myself in college with a beautiful girlfriend and a good education. I also see Malaak writing me a recommendation to get into the college. I would tell you what two schools I'm going to attend, but I'm not sure yet.

-Albert Brunn III, 12

In five years I see myself graduating from Clara Barton High School with a GPA of 90 and above. Then I see myself going to college to be a Registered Nurse. The colleges that I would like to attend are Spellman, Farmingdale, Harvard, Howard and Hunter College. This means that I have to work very hard and stay on task. After I graduate college with a nursing degree, I will get a job working in a hospital and in my spare time I will volunteer at the Salvation Army.
In ten years I see myself moving up in the medical field, and being a mentor to the upcoming Journey for Change kids. I will speak out to the community about the importance of staying in school and achieving your goals because knowledge is the key part of life and without knowledge you have nothing. I will help to guide them in being respectful and generous to everyone.

-Jenee Lawson, 15

I will be in college in five years studying culinary arts and business. In ten years, I will be running my own restaurant and starting a family hopefully living in the suburbs. I want four kids and to travel the world. I want to take my family to Hawaii. I will do an open kitchen at my restaurant every Friday night and people who are hungry can come and eat.

-Wayne Phillips, 15

In five years I will be a junior in college majoring in pre-law. I will be playing college ball and hanging out with my future girlfriend. I will volunteer at the Salvation Army in my spare time. And I will come back to Brooklyn to say hi and check on everyone. In ten years, I will be playing in the NBA, married with kids and living a low-key life. I will teach my kids not to make the same mistakes that I have. I want a close family.

-Jeremy Baker, 15

Five years from now I will be 20 years old and half way through college. I would love to go to Howard University so I am working hard to bring my grades up. I enjoy traveling and volunteering so I will probably continue to travel across the nation and internationally in service for others. I don't think I will ever stop volunteering my time, talents and service for others. Who knows I may become an activist for human rights, especially after seeing Slumdog Millionaire!

-Joshua Hall, 15

In five years I will have graduated from college and will be working as a fashion stylist. I will still volunteer giving my time to people who need it. In ten years, I will be living in Los Angeles, CA, married with kids, and working on great projects.

-Yolaine Calixte, 17

Omg!!! Slumdog Millionaire was an amazing movie. I loved it. I didn't know that the poverty was so bad in India. It's amazing what you can learn from a movie huh!? I was amazed at how all those children who played slumdogs in the movie were actually slumdogs. Like after the movie you would think they would have all the fame right in hotels and stuff. No, they're back in the slums. The way those children are treated! They do not deserve to be treated in this matter. It was very devastating to watch this movie because of everything that was happening. This is an amazing movie if you haven't seen this movie I don't know what you are waiting for because this movie is breathtakingly outstanding.

Love ~N~ Peace

-Mariah C. Ralph, 13

Slumdog Millionaire was sad because I started to feel their pain and put myself in their shoes. I cried. I was able to see how people live and it made me appreciative and thankful. Though the brother treated his brother wrong, he died for him so he could be with the girl he wanted.

-Sadara Lewis, 13

Slumdog Millionaire was inspiring because the main character was eager and anxious to find the girl that he loved. He stayed true to her and did not deviate from his mission until he saved her. I found the poverty very similar to South Africa, but the bathroom situation was different because they had to pay to use the toilets in the Mumbai slums.

-Donovan Rodgers, 14

Slumdog Millionaire was interesting because it had a lot of ups and downs. The two boys were together their whole life and saw a lot of things. And then one was in love and never stopped thinking of the girl. The poverty was really bad and striking and shocking. It was similar in South Africa but I think it was even worse, which is really bad.

-Jonathan Severe, 14

I thought Slumdog Millionaire was a good movie because it taught a lesson about being grateful for what you have because in other countries they don't have anything. I liked when the flashbacks happened so we were able to see the past. The main character didn't forget anything. We should be helping more countries with their poverty.

-Laura DiFilippi, 13

Filed under: BIA2 • Journey for Change • Soledad OBrien • Uncategorized

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February 21, 2009

Behind the Scenes: Cuba's Concert for Peace

Posted: 04:25 PM ET

By Soledad O'Brien
Latino in America

My trip to Cuba began on my birthday. After snarfing down a Duncan Heinz birthday cake made by my four kids and decorated with Red Hots, I headed to Miami first, then on to Havana.

It was hot when I arrived at Jose Marti Airport. Temperatures for the concert were well into the 90's. Hopeful concert-goers were lined up along the roads - hoping to hitch a ride or catch a wah-wah (the local bus) to Plaza de la Revolution. It's the same spot where Pope John Paul II said mass back in 1998.

But this was a concert and the "water station" in the tent for the performers served mojitos with Havana Club, a rum you cannot buy in the United States because of the embargo.

Our photographer, Orlando, arrived with a tent -– thankfully - because by midday young women were fainting from heat exhaustion and the crowd estimate had swelled to 600,000 people. At 2 p.m. sharp the concert began, with Puerto Rican singer Olga Tanon taking the stage and despite the heat, the crowd danced wildly to her music.

Cucu Diamantes (Crazy Diamonds) who is tall and willowy and never broke a sweat, told me she was happy - and that it was very emotional for her. A Cuban-American who left Cuba in the mid-80s, she hadn’t been back to Cuba for eight years and even then it was to visit her family.

We wrangled our way onto the stage - the security was tight but it was doable - and had a quick chat with Miguel Bose - who said he was energized by seeing so many Cubans waving flags. He, as all the performers consistently did, underscored the concerts focus - peace. And brushed off any questions of controversy by saying the people, the growing crowd, just wanted to be entertained.

We got to run "backstage," really the upstairs of the National Library, to interview Juanes. Making our way through the throng of mostly young people who were waiting outside to catch a glimpse of Juanes as he did a mad dash (about 100 yards) to the stage. Juanes was thrilled with the crowd, by that time estimated through satellite photos by the Cuban government, to be about 1.2 million people.

He sang me some of the lyrics to the duet he did with Bose, “Give me an island in the middle of the sea, named liberty.”

It sounded a little political to me but he said it was a song Miguel Bose wrote a decade before when this concert was impossibility and he sang happy birthday to me, which was pretty cool too.

With Los Van Van on the stage and more than an hour after the concert was supposed to wrap, the cloud cover cooled things down and the crowd was going crazy. The final song with all the performers on the stage to sing “Cuba Cuba Cuba” was a showstopper - it was nearly six hours of pure joy for the people who attended. The crowd dispersed for the slow trek home and we started packing our gear.

Back at the Hotel Nacional, I got to sit and listen as Juanes played guitar with local musicians. There was lots of drinking and celebrating a successful day. In spite of all the obstacles, some resistance and small protests in Miami, logistical challenges and surely political hoops to jump through, Juanes pulled off his second concert for peace - the first was on the Colombian-Venezuelan border. He was already talking about the next one in 2010 on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Latino population is set to nearly triple by 2050. This October, Soledad O'Brien journeys into the homes and hearts of a group destined to change the U.S. Witness the evolution of a country as Latinos change America and America changes Latinos. In Depth: Latino in America

Filed under: Latino in America • Soledad OBrien

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February 18, 2009

Former Marine facing foreclosure, but do you really want to bail him out?

Posted: 06:38 PM ET

pv_16959_00471Jeff Gray is a nice guy.  He's a 45 year old father of three, a husband to a school teacher and a former Marine.  He is also self-admittedly financially inept and very-near being kicked out of his suburban Maryland home.  He is literally begging for help not to be foreclosed on.  But when you hear his short financial history,  you may come to the same conclusion that J.P. Morgan Chase has come to: Jeff Gray can not keep his home.

I sat in his living room a few weeks back and went through his mortgage papers and could not believe what I was reading.  In 2005,  Jeff Gray filed a tax return indicating he and his wife had a combined income of $7,900 a year.  In December of that same year the couple refinanced their three bedroom home for $347,000.  It would take four months of his salary to pay for just one month of his mortgage.

When I asked him how anyone ever approved this loan,   he told me to look at the loan papers that he says were filled out by a fast talking mortgage broker.  The loan form indicated Jeff and his wife were making more than $13,000 a month!

"Wait a minute",  jeff1I said  "Your income was 7-thousand-900 a year and they inflated it on the paperwork to $13,000-a-month, and somehow they loaned you 347 thousand?"
"Jeff,  I have to ask you did that make sense to you at the time?"
"Well Drew,  when I went back and looked at it,  like I said we were signing deeds we were getting them real fast,  and we didn't know.  We didn't pay any attention to it."
Jeff Gray has not made a mortgage payment, he says, in four years.  He has been living rent free, unable to pay that $2,700-a-month for even one month. Now he wants help.
There are a lot of reasons we have gotten into this housing mess.  Whomever it was who wrote this loan, approved this loan and sold this loan should, in my view, be held responsible for it.  But that also includes the person who applied for the loan, signed for the loan and then couldn't pay the loan.
Jeff Gray told me he feels he was swindled, caught up in a swirl of paper work flying at him at closing.  And it is true he is being kicked out while the banks are being bailed out. But there is no fine print about the loan papers I saw. They clearly stated his first mortgage payment would be $2,700 dollars and he knew he couldn't afford it.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Uncategorized

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February 12, 2009

Do You Think You Could Spot a Killer?

Posted: 06:34 PM ET

Steven Kazmierczak was a sociology major at Northern Illinois University. He later went on to study social work as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. He was surrounded by professors who studied criminology and were experts in criminal behavior. His friends were also counselors-in-training.


When I first reported this story, one year ago, I met some of the people closest to Steven Kazmierczak. I asked them if they had seen any warning signs. I asked them if they thought he was capable of mass murder. They all told me they never saw this coming.

But why didn’t they? Two of the people closest to him told me they knew he had problems, they knew he was off and on anti-depressants, and that he was anxious and had obsessive compulsive disorder.

It makes me think that if a group of criminologists and counselors in training didn’t pick up on what some people would call “warning signs,” than what luck would an average person have at detecting strange behavior?

One year after the shooting, police records obtained by CNN show a much different story than the one his college friends, and professors told me.

The documents show that Steven Kazmierczak was spiraling out of control. As a teenager he attempted suicide on several occasions. He was hospitalized nine different times, prior to 2001.

He was kicked out of the Army for lying about his mental health problems on his application.

He suffered from OCD.

He was an insomniac.

He was off and on anti-depressants.

He loved horror movies, and began to identify with the sadistic killer “Jigsaw” from the movies “Saw.”

He got a large tattoo of “Jigsaw’s” alter-ego riding a tricycle through a puddle of blood on his forearm.

He owned multiple guns.

He had sex with several women he met on Craig’s List.

He was confused about his sexuality.

He loved on-line, first-person shooter games.

He was obsessed with studying serial killers – and seemed to admire Adolf Hitler and Ted Bundy.

The list is lengthy – and this doesn’t even come close to covering it all.

Of course, it is much easier to look back at someone after a tragedy like this, and ask yourself, “What did I miss?” I mean, what’s so wrong with loving horror movies? What’s wrong with being a gun owner or having tattoos or being obsessed with serial killers? Who is to say that any of this means someone is about to snap?

In this case, some of the people closest to Steven Kazmierczak were studying psychology – and many of them focused their work on how the criminal mind functions and operates.

So, my question is if none of them could spot a killer, how could any of us?

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau • Special Investigations Unit

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