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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
Americans Charged with Kidnapping; Bank of America Outrage; Welcome to the TEA Party
Aired February 4, 2010 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Tonight we have breaking news about those American missionaries in Haiti. As you may know already they were charged today. But what we've just uncovered and you'll hear tonight for the first time is frankly stunning.
We've been talking about their good intentions and how they maybe just have been naive and misinformed or not well informed. Well, you're going to see in a moment and hear in a moment that the idea that they were naive and uninformed now appears to be simply untrue.
Tonight only on 360, you'll hear the firsthand account of an orphanage worker in Haiti who says the missionary leader went trolling for kids promising to take them to America. And he says she was repeatedly told that's illegal.
You'll also hear from an American man who says the missionary leader offered to get the kids he and his wife were trying to adopt legally. She offered to get them out of Haiti. They said that is illegal. She tried to do it anyway.
Also tonight, they wrecked the economy, Wall Street big wigs is what we're talking about. Everybody from the president on down promised to get tough on them, remember that. We have news today, that civil charges against the former top guy at Bank of America, civil charges, no threat of jail time. The question is why not? And why after the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression is not one single executive facing jail time? We're talking about your money, your future.
And later, the TEA Party convention has begun. We'll look at who's there and who isn't. And help you make sense of the movement that could shape the upcoming elections.
First up tonight, Haiti: the missionaries, the kids and now, those criminal charges. Today the ten missionaries and most of them from a Baptist congregation in Idaho appeared in court. I want to show you the video because they got shoved around. It was kind of -- chaotic to say the least going in.
Once inside they were hit with counts of kidnapping and criminal association for trying to take 33 kids across the border into the Dominican Republic. Now, the prosecutor didn't bring the most serious possible charge which is child trafficking, but a judge could amend the indictment later.
Look at this. A lot of -- I mean, just chaotic there as you can see. As it stands the current charges could add up to life in prison.
Now, a lawyer for the group said something very interesting. He said nine of the ten were, quote, "completely innocent." But if the court were to keep one member it could be the group leader Laura Silsby.
Tonight, we've uncovered a lot of very shocking allegations about Ms. Silsby's actions. The group maintained again, today, they had no intention of breaking the law when they tried to take those 33 kids by bus into the Dominican Republic.
But just the other day we learned the group had made contact with a Haitian police officer apparently to try to smooth the mission. We don't know if a bribe was paid or not. We've also heard from the Dominican counsel general in Haiti who says he warned the group pointblank right to their face that without the right documents -- documents they did not have -- that what they were planning to do was against the law.
So now tonight, in a "360 Exclusive," for the first time two new voices who also suggests that the leader of the group Laura Silsby was not uninformed about what she was doing.
In Nashville, Richard Pickett, he just brought three kids home from Haiti legally. While he was there his wife Melinda got three surprising and disturbing calls from Ms. Silsby.
And on the phone from Port-au-Prince, is David Louis who works at an orphanage run by his father. Laura Silsby visited him and he's talking about her for the first time.
David on the phone; let me start with you. Laura Silsby came to you to your orphanage, said she was looking for orphans to take away. Didn't that strike you as odd?
DAVID LOUIS, COMPASSION FOR ALL ORPHANAGE (via telephone): Yes. Laura came to our orphanage, friendly, very friendly, very polite, asking us do we need help? And do we have any children that are injured and that need help? And well, we answered them -- we told her that we had children that had fever and the cold and they said they can help by giving us some medicine. And...
COOPER: She also told you that...
LOUIS: ...she also ask us do we have difficulty...
COOPER: ...she also told you that she wanted to take kids into Dominican Republic, correct?
LOUIS: Well, let me explain it to you. She was asking us can -- can she help us by taking a few children for us so that they could be raised in an orphanage, in other orphanage?
COOPER: And what did you tell her about that?
COOPER: Yes. What did you tell her about that, David?
LOUIS: Well, I told her that -- ok. I told her that the adoption process is difficult for me to take decision. And the person that takes decisions is not here.
COOPER: So you told her that she could not take...
LOUIS: ...which is Arthur Louis my father...
COOPER: ...but you told her that she could not take kids into the Dominican Republic without the permission of the government, correct?
LOUIS: No. I don't know much about -- I don't know much about that. But I only told her that I can't -- I can't make those types of decisions.
LOUIS: That's all I did.
COOPER: Richard, Laura -- Richard, Laura Silsby learned that you and your wife were in the process of adopting several Haitian kids. It's a process that you've been in for years. You were doing it completely legally and appropriately. And she called your wife apparently three times saying she was in Haiti and would get your kids out of the country. Is that correct?
RICHARD PICKETT, ADOPTED HAITIAN CHILDREN: Yes, that's correct.
COOPER: What did your wife think of that?
PICKETT: My wife was very surprised and alarmed. She told Laura on each occasion that she called, she said absolutely not. We do not need any help. She told her that I was in Haiti and please do not do anything with our children.
COOPER: You were already on the ground in Haiti already going through the proper channels to get your kids out because you had the proper paperwork. But even after your wife said, do not go to the orphanage do not try to take our kids, she actually did go to the orphanage to try to look for your kids, right?
PICKETT: Yes, that's correct.
COOPER: What did you make of that? I mean, what do you think of what she was up to? PICKETT: To me it's pretty alarming because we're the legal parents of these children and we give her explicit directions not to interfere with them. For her to continue to come and try to find them, to take them to the Dominican tells me that her intent is not actually the best.
COOPER: Why do you -- do you think she -- and did your wife pointblank say to her, you know, not only don't go to the kids but this is not the way to do it? This is not legal?
PICKETT: No, she didn't tell her that, but the person that gave Laura our contact information told her explicitly that you cannot just take any child across the border. You have to have the correct permissions to do that from the government. And Laura wanted to make the calls anyway to see if there were ways that she could get children.
COOPER: So a lot of us are trying to figure out, you know, I mean, everybody has been giving the benefit of the doubt to these people and they seem well-intentioned, they seem that they're coming from a good place in their heart. Do you believe that? I mean, what do you now make of this? You've had actual interaction. Your wife has had actual interaction with them.
PICKETT: Yes, for my wife to have three different phone calls and explicitly tell her on each call to not interfere with our children and for Laura to continue anyway to go to the orphanage to try to find them, to take them, tells me her intentions are not the best. And I guess the best, if I tried to characterize her in the best light possible, I would say -- her intent was to take children and use them to do fund-raising and for support.
Maybe it's worse than that but I wouldn't want to speculate any further.
COOPER: But do you think that's really maybe what was at the heart of this? That she for whatever reason wanted to use these kids or show that she was doing stuff for fund-raising?
PICKETT: Yes. Because as David may tell you, if you switch back to him, she then hired David when he wouldn't give her any children and my children were not there, they were with me. She hired David to go from orphanage to orphanage and be her translator and guide. And no one would turn children over to her. In the end she was frustrated and crying that none of the responsible adults would give her any children.
COOPER: Yes, David suddenly has become sort of reticent to talk to us. So I think I'm just going to stick with you. He has previously said that yes, that he was hired as an interpreter by her and told us -- and told our producers that she would cry. What do you make of that, Richard?
PICKETT: Again, it just shows that her intent really cannot be the best. If the responsible adults are there taking care of the children and providing for them why would she cry and become frustrated when they don't give them up? I would think she'd be happy to find that there were responsible caregivers that were taking care of the children.
PICKETT: But since she wasn't, obviously her intentions couldn't have been the best.
COOPER: What do you think should happen, I mean, now?
PICKETT: If she had actually taken our children I think it would actually be a matter for the FBI to prosecute her for abduction or kidnapping, but since she didn't actually get our children I'm not really sure. I think the Haitian government obviously has strong compelling evidence in order to keep her.
I'm sure that the United States government is doing all it can to smooth things out and evidently they're not able to do that. So that leads me to believe that the government of Haiti will really deal with what she has actually been able to accomplish.
COOPER: Richard, I know -- I just want to end on a happy note. You've gotten three kids. Your family has now grown a lot. You have some photos of your kids. How are they doing?
PICKETT: Oh, they're doing great. We're actually very surprised at how well the children are integrating and the biological children that we already had are receiving them very well. It doesn't seem like we're having any jealousy or non-sharing type situations that at first we were concerned about. Everything is going very well.
COOPER: Well Richard, congratulations to you and your wife. What you've done is extraordinary. And I just want to thank you for talking about this situation and also for what you've done. Thank you very much and to David Louis as well.
PICKETT: Yes, sir, thank you.
COOPER: I want to bring in Karl Penhaul now, who's been listening to these stories, try to help us connect, because Karl has been on top of this story now really since day one.
Karl, what do you make of this? I mean, the fact now, previously we had that representative from the Dominican Republic who said pointblank he told Ms. Silsby that what they were doing was illegal. You now have Richard who says that his wife said, don't go try to get our kids and this woman still went in and tried to that. And the woman who gave them their information said that this is illegal.
KARL PENHAUL, CNN VIDEO CORRESPONDENT: They had no doubt in their minds what they were doing was absolutely illegal and that if they were caught they would be arrested. What we've got is a group of people that come across as naive, come across as God-fearing people.
They've told a series of lies and I won't hedge my bets there. I'll say they've told a series of lies and we've that in interviews and on bits of paper. And they showed a calculated disregard for the law. Every time they've been told not to do something they found a way around -- Anderson.
COOPER: I want to talk to you about what those lies are.
We've got to take a quick break. Also -- and just -- so we'll be back with Karl in just a moment.
We're also, this is a story, a lot of moving parts both in Haiti and also back in Idaho where the missionary leader Laura Silsby was also in some pretty hot water.
Dan Simon is going to talk to us about that.
Let us know what you think about all of this. I mean, it's bizarre to say the least. Join the live chat at AC360.com.
Coming up later, welcome to the TEA Party: our in-depth look at the protest movement and their very first convention going on right now. Part of our commitment as the best political team on TV.
We'll be right back.
COOPER: So we're talking about the case against these ten American missionaries caught trying to take Haitian kids -- many of whom were not orphans -- out of the country; the case against them growing.
Let me just show you what happened in court today. We showed you at the top of the hour. I mean, a lot of pushing and shoving as these folks were brought in. The charges against them: kidnapping, criminal association; in other words, conspiracy, not eligible for bail. The U.S. State Department is saying they are monitoring developments.
So let's talk to Karl Penhaul who's been following this from the get-go. So Karl, in terms of what we know that they have said to you and others that -- is we know is not true. What are the lies that you say you know pointblank?
PENHAUL: Well, let's not even go into the stuff they talked about in the interview. Let's talk about this little piece of paper. It's about four inches by three. This is the so-called brochure that the Americans were giving out to people who were handing over children.
First line, "We want to help Haitian children who have lost their mother and father." That is not true. Most of these children were not orphans. And in many cases it was their own mother and/or father that handed over the kids to the Americans. And the Americans knew that because their translators were translating that for them.
Lie two: "New Children Refugee is a non-profit dedicated to loving and caring for orphaned and abandoned Haitian children in the Dominican Republic." We understand that the organization isn't even yet registered as a non-profit and it certainly isn't dedicated to looking after any kind of kids in the D.R. because that school and orphanage is not set up yet. It is still a 45-room motel that hasn't been converted.
Third lie on this single piece of paper: "We have permission to bring orphan kids into our orphanage in the Dominican Republic." Not true. The Dominican consul told the Americans at 2:00 p.m. on Friday, "You do not have the paperwork. It is illegal what you are doing. Do not travel."
Four hours later at the border the Americans were arrested.
And then final lie, they're talking about "You can follow the progress of your kids on our Web site," the Web site is not up and running yet -- Anderson.
COOPER: And so they're handing this out. I mean, essentially what we now know is they were around in Port-au-Prince trolling for kids. I mean, going around trying to collect kids under the age of 10 so for whatever reason they could take them to the Dominican Republic and what they -- we had also just learned today is they had told that guy, David Louis, they were actually going to bring some of these kids into the United States or they'd offered to bring Richard's kids into the -- back to the United States which you know the fact that Richard and his wife -- that his wife said, "Look, do not go to these orphanage where our kids are in the process of being legally adopted. And they went anyway to try to get them. To me that just raises all sorts of red flags.
PENHAUL: It certainly does raise red flags as well as the fact that they were looking for children age from zero to 10; kids that aged under 10. I asked an NGO specialist about that, why zero to 10? He says kids of zero to 10 are much easier to send in adoption. You can bet your bottom dollar if those kids were going to be sentenced into adoption they weren't going to be adopted in the D.R., they would have been sent abroad for that.
Maybe the D.R. was a halfway house. I don't know that for sure, though. But certainly, you know, the people that you've talked to tonight, you can piece it together. And it seems like that. And yes, certainly they were trolling for orphanages as well because the tree translators that we've spoken to extensively have said they also were asked to telephone another orphanage and that other orphanage also declined help.
COOPER: Yes, the one thing if they had an orphanage set up in the Dominican Republic that they had been operating for -- you know even a month or two months. The fact is they didn't. They've -- I guess rented a motel and that's what they were saying with their orphanage.
So again, a lot of moving parts to this. Karl, I appreciate you being on top of it.
So the question that we're wondering, then, is well, ok, so who is this lady? This leader of this group? Because a lot of people in the group seem like good people. They seem like -- they -- everybody saw the TV -- everybody wanted to rush down there and help.
So why did she think she was qualified to do this? What do we know about this woman Laura Silsby? So we've been looking into it.
Dan Simon is on the ground in Idaho. Dan, what have you learned?
DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Anderson, we can tell you that Laura Silsby at one time operated a very successful Web site it's called PersonalShopper.com. It's still in business but they have been struggling big time.
And we can tell you that in the days before she went to Haiti her world was really collapsing. Her home, it was foreclosed on, on Christmas Eve. She's a single mother. She's got three kids and she lost her home on December 24th.
And then her business, they couldn't pay their bills. We went to the courthouse this morning here in Meridian, Idaho and a stack of lawsuits. People say -- saying that she hasn't paid her bills, several employees saying that they haven't been paid.
We talked to a guy named Bryan Jack. He technically is still a manager at that business but he doesn't really know where things stand because he hasn't been paid. In his words, he said that Laura Silsby is shady in terms of how she operates her business.
I want you to listen to what Bryan Jack had to say about Laura Silsby and that trip to Haiti.
Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRYAN JACK, LAURA SILSBY EMPLOYEE: You know, in my heart I think she probably went down there with good intentions to help people that were in trouble but it's a lack of foresight and planning. Once again, she did that in her business life. And it seems to follow her in her personal life.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Wow. I mean, it's sad. I mean, it's just depressing. I mean, clearly she's got a lot of baggage and she's got a lot going on in her own life. It's clear. And just the fact that she's a single mom.
But -- I mean, has she ever run an orphanage? Or is there any indication? Do we know how this whole orphanage idea got going? Did she sell it to the church?
SIMON: Well, we know that...
COOPER: I mean, how did that work?
SIMON: Well, here's what happened. She came up with this idea a couple of years ago. And she actually hired her 24-year-old nanny to actually set up this orphanage. They started a foundation and it was really in its infancy. They thought that, you know, they put together this manifesto. They thought they would eventually get down to the Dominican Republic some time down the road.
Then the earthquake happens and all of a sudden they wanted to get down there right away. So she came here to the church, she met with the pastor and they solicited donations and word came out to the church members, does anybody want to go to Haiti and go set up this orphanage in the Dominican Republic? And you had a few people raise their hands and say, "I want to go."
So some of the people who actually went down with her only, you know, raised their hand 48 hours before they actually got on an airplane...
SIMON: ...and were just following her throughout the country.
COOPER: Wow, that's incredible. I hadn't realized that, that it's a lot of just churchgoers who wanted to do the right thing and were following this woman down there.
I now understand a little bit more of why the defense attorney today said, "Well, look, out of the ten people nine, you know, nine know nothing, if anybody has to stay it should be this woman Laura Silsby," that according to that attorney.
Dan, I appreciate your reporting on the ground there. Again, we'll continue to follow the story.
And I just want to point out, I mean, there are a lot of good people doing good work in Haiti and a lot of -- probably even these people went down with good intentions, most of them. If you want to help Haitian kids, there's many ways to do it. You don't have to take them out of the country. There's many orphanages one can support there. I mean, God knows there's certainly enough need and hundreds of thousands of kids now in need.
And a sad footnote, before we go to break, a few minutes ago on Larry King, Haiti's Prime Minister was on the program. He said the death toll is now 212,000. And frankly that's an estimate because they're not really counting -- they released early on they were not counting the dead.
Just ahead tonight: why a central figure in the economic meltdown in this country is facing civil charges and not criminal charges. And not he or a single one of his colleagues has ever been facing the possibility of jail time.
Later, the pandas: we watched them grow up in Washington and at Atlanta. Now they're moving out. How come? That's the "Shot" tonight.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: Well, their bankruptcy, billions in bailout cash, your money and now the men running it at the time stand accused of defrauding the government and frankly defrauding all of us. The charges today brought against the Bank of America and two former top executives in a civil suit. Not a criminal suit, a civil suit.
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said they lied to shareholders about the merger with Merrill Lynch trying to hide Merrill's disastrous losses. Now, the merger was approved but former CEO Ken Lewis, that guy right there and ex-chief financial officer Joe Price allegedly tried to then back out of the deal claiming Merrill's losses were now too high. And the only way to make it work would be if the government, the taxpayers, gave them billions of dollars in bailout cash which is what happened. Cuomo says it's an arrogant scheme hatched by executives who believed they could play by their own set of rules.
It's not a criminal case, which then makes -- raises the question, where is the justice in this? I mean, if no one has actually is going to do criminal time if they're actually convicted?
Senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin joins me now. Why isn't this a criminal case?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, that's a good question. In its -- the broader question -- I mean, think about the magnitude of this crisis. Think about the damage that's been done. The amount of bailouts that's been -- that have been given over the course and not just to AIG.
TOOBIN: To all the banks.
COOPER: And also all the shady practices and kind of bets which, you know, are gambling with other people's money that precipitated it all.
TOOBIN: That precipitated it and the number of people who have gone to prison as a result of this entire scandal is zero.
COOPER: Absolutely no one.
TOOBIN: No one.
COOPER: But those guys from Bear Stearns...
TOOBIN: Well, they were acquitted. That's the only trial that has even come out of this so far. The two traders at Bear Stearns were acquitted.
Now, in fairness to the Justice Department and other investigators, white-collar investigations sometimes take a long time. So presumably things are in the works.
But you know, think about two of these characters that have gotten a lot of attention. Richard Fuld, the head of Lehman Brothers, catastrophic failure. We don't know whether he's under investigation. We certainly don't know whether he committed a crime. He is, you know, certainly -- nothing has happened to him yet.
Another figure, Joseph Cassano, he is an elusive figure.
TOOBIN: It's very hard to get a photograph of him. The "Daily Mail" of London got that one. He made $300 million. AIG collapsed calamitously and there's been no criminal case brought there. Again, I don't want to accuse him of a crime. But it's certainly worthy of investigation. No one has been prosecuted yet.
COOPER: And so why not -- I mean, if Ken Lewis can be charged civilly, is it easier to bring a civil charge?
TOOBIN: It is easier to bring a civil charge. The burden of proof is only preponderance of the evidence; it's not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And so far the government has not been able to establish that this isn't just a bad luck, mistakes, everybody trying to do their best, but not fraud. That's the defense so far and so far it's worked.
COOPER: And what would be the potential -- I mean, the civil -- it's just a monetary fund?
TOOBIN: You know, there are a lot of people doing a lot of time in prison for white-collar crimes. The penalties are way up. The head of Worldcom, Bernie Ebbers, is doing more than 20 years.
TOOBIN: Ivan Boesky went to prison; Michael Milken (ph) went to prison.
COOPER: But for a civil fine would just be -- I mean, it would just be money?
TOOBIN: It would just be money. And remember, Bank of America is paying his legal fees. Bank of America paid $150 million today to the SEC...
COOPER: So in fact, taxpayer money is funding his legal fees basically.
TOOBIN: And the taxpayers are funding it indirectly. And the shareholders, who in many respects are the victims of this, are subsidizing. So everybody -- the money is churning but the individuals involved have not paid virtually any price at all other than public humiliation.
COOPER: So -- if you're a stockholder in Bank of America you're not only helping to pay for his defense, you're also paying for the bailout so you're paying twice.
TOOBIN: And -- look, three times if you count you're also being a taxpayer.
COOPER: There you go.
TOOBIN: There you go.
COOPER: All right. We'll that's not a good thing.
Jeff Toobin, I appreciate it. Thanks.
Coming up next, troubled Toyota; more models in the spotlight tonight including the most luxurious and supposedly best-built cars. We're going to bring you the latest in the investigation and tell you which brands now are being looked at.
And the TEA party convention, 360 is there. Sarah Palin is going. But other TEA party activists are not going to this convention. We're going to bring you inside the movement tonight and show you what it's about and who's driving it.
We'll be right back.
COOPER: Coming up in the program, sharks attacking off Florida's coast. We'll tell you how it happened and maybe why it happened.
But first, let's check on some other important stories. Kiran Chetry has a "360 Bulletin" -- Kiran.
KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: And Anderson, self-help guru James Ray's attorney says his client doesn't have the money to make bail. Ray is currently in jail on $5 million bond after pleading not guilty to manslaughter charges in the deaths of three people at a sweat-lodge ceremony that he led last year.
There are more problems for Toyota tonight. The company is now looking into possible brake problems with its luxury Lexus hybrid. This comes after the feds announced they're investigating more than 100 reports of brake failures in its 2010 Priuses. Toyota has acknowledged a software glitch now that caused braking problems in some of the 2010 Priuses. Its Lexus hybrids use that same breaking system.
Fears about a growing debt crisis in Europe sending stocks tumbling today; the Dow actually plunged tumbled 268 points. That's the lowest close we've seen in three months. Nasdaq and S&P also ended the day down.
President Obama today saying, quote, "We should take our time finalizing a health-care bill." Speaking at a Democratic fundraiser, he also said that he wants to go through the legislation in detail with Republicans, Democrats, as well as health-care experts to see whether there are better ways to improve the system.
And Heinz, for all you ketchup lovers, has now revamped its familiar ketchup packets. People have long complained that they were either too messy, too small, too hard to open and also, you can't dip with them. So take a look now at the new ketchup...
COOPER: Oh, no.
CHETRY: You don't like it?
COOPER: I don't know. I'll have to try it.
CHETRY: Well, first of all, it's bigger. OK? It's three times as much ketchup and you can dip or squeeze. You can take your pick. They're test marketing it. Maybe they can send you some.
They reportedly worked on this redesign, by the way, for years, which had some of our writers scratching their heads. Why would it take so long? I mean, look at some of the other familiar packets that have managed to sort of solve this problem years ahead.
COOPER: It does kind of look like all the other packets.
CHETRY: There you go.
COOPER: But maybe we're missing -- maybe there's a fine point to it. I kind of like the old squeeze ones, like -- anyway, they were messy, though.
CHETRY: You used -- had to use your teeth, right?
COOPER: That's right. Yes, of course.
CHETRY: Me too.
COOPER: Just ahead, welcome to the TEA Party. The grassroots movement has grown up, holding its first national convention. It's spread far and fast over the last year. Over the next two nights we'll bring you the Raw Politics.
Plus, saying good-bye is never easy, of course. But no matter how cuddly and cute, every butter stick has to grow up. The pandas that so many will miss are leaving. We'll tell you why.
COOPER: A milestone in "Raw Politics" today. The grassroots movement known as the TEA Party is holding its first national convention. Now, the meeting began today in Nashville. Randi Kaye is there. We'll have a live report from her in a moment.
It sprang up quickly; the movement did last year, spread very fast. We put together kind of a timeline of some key moments.
Last February you may remember anger over the first stimulus package and bailouts triggered dozens of TEA Party protests across the country. Outrage was raw at times.
The next big eruption: April, 2009, just after tax day; protests in 300 cities. The event was publicized by top conservatives on Twitter and on conservative blogs. A new Web site, TaxDayTeaParty.com coordinated the event.
Then in August, during the congressional recess, and with outrage building over health-care reform and town-hall meetings every other day or so, there were fistfights, shouting matches. Anger was escalating.
And in September, big rally, of course, in Washington again to protest health-care reform.
Hundreds of independent TEA Party groups have sprung up. Their members have diverging even compelling -- competing political ideas and views, but they're united around a common cause.
And over the next couple nights in "Welcome to the TEA Party" we'll be drilling down deeper.
Joining me now is John Avlon, columnist for TheDailyBeast.com and author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America".
It has changed a lot, the TEA Party movement, in some ways over the last year.
JOHN AVLON, COLUMNIST, THEDAILYBEAST.COM: It has. I mean, this began as a really grassroots fiscal conservative protest. And over the course of the summer it got increasingly radicalized. You had some conservative activists actually advocating that these -- that their conservatives start using Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radical". And you see them start to embrace street-theater politics, you know, kind of politics of confrontation. And the whole thing got a lot uglier.
But you know, just because the guys with the "Obama equals Hitler" signs get all the attention doesn't mean that describes the whole movement.
COOPER: Right. There are -- it's very easy to dismiss a movement. But it's inappropriate and would be foolish. Because, I mean, there are people of -- who have never been involved -- what's so interesting about it is that there are people who have never been involved in the politic process who really feel energized in a way that we haven't seen before.
AVLON: That's right, and that's hugely important. I mean, you've got to put yourself in the shoes of the small-business owner who's participating in protests for the first time. And ask yourself why.
Well, it's because while he was struggling to, you know, pay his bills on time last spring, he kept seeing big business and big government run up huge debts and then pass the buck onto the back of the taxpayer. And that made average folks really angry for a good reason.
There's a common-sense anger about deficits that say, "Hey, this is general theft -- generational theft. This is unsustainable." And it's important to understand where these folks are coming from and not just be distracted by the crazies.
COOPER: The issue of fiscal responsibility is sort of the most common theme you find linking a lot of these disparate groups.
AVLON: Absolutely. That is the common ground.
COOPER: And the individual rights and fiscal responsibility.
AVLON: You know, there are many different tributaries to this movement. But the bottom line, the common ground that exists is fiscal conservatism. It is a reaction against overspending and the growth of government.
COOPER: A lot of the -- the critics of it will say, well, where were some of these people under the Bush years when the deficits were growing exponentially, you know, not as much as they're growing now but were growing hugely. You didn't hear this kind of grassroots rising of anger about it.
AVLON: No. And I think that's a very fair and important point. You know, you talk to these folks who say, "We were angry at the way conservatives, you know, overspent during the Bush years when they had unified control over Washington." And -- but all of a sudden, it took, you know, a couple of days into the new administration and the anger started really percolating at a whole new level in a really different kind of arena. So you can't underestimate the fact that this is a reaction to the Obama administration.
COOPER: This national convention is -- frankly, it's kind of a couple of splinter groups, but other groups like Dick Armey's group, which has been kind of helping or advising some of the TEA Party groups, isn't taking part. And so there are some sort of fissures in it that have already come up.
AVLON: That's exactly right. I mean, this is a for-profit convention. That is hugely controversial.
COOPER: Sarah Palin is getting, I think, $100,000 for her speech.
AVLON: A hundred thousand for her prime-time banquet address on Saturday night. So all this is hugely controversial.
TEA Partiers take a lot of pride in the fact that this is a leaderless movement, and when folks try to sort of seize the limelight, they get angry because they see this as being a grassroots movement.
But that's where a lot of the misinformation has kind of seeped in, because there is no coordinated message. It's part of what makes this a genuine populist movement, but it's also what's made it, I think, hard to fully appreciate.
COOPER: The question then is also what happens to it now? I mean, does it become a third party? Does it -- does it -- clearly, the GOP is hoping to embrace -- you had this quote, I think, from John Boehner just the other day. I wrote it down here.
It says John Boehner said -- the House minority leader, he said, "There's really no difference between what Republicans believe and what TEA Party activists believe in."
Clearly, a lot of players in the Republican Party are hoping that -- to embrace the TEA Partiers, and a lot of TEA Partiers are hoping that they will bring the GOP back to conservative roots.
AVLON: That's right. I mean, you've got conservative activists and politicians who want to surf this wave into power. They want to also purge the party of RINOs, what they call RINOs -- Republicans In Name Only.
And that's one of the really interesting things here. Because, you know, a lot of people conflate TEA Partiers and the independent voters, the independent movement. But there's real differences.
TEA Partiers are conservative populists. They are to the right of the Republican Party. Most independent voters are in between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. They're angry at the polarization in Washington.
A lot of TEA Partiers would like to see more polarization in Washington. They don't think Republicans have been conservative enough.
And there's a further kind of irony here. Because you look at the way Republicans are trying to set themselves to take power back in 2010. Look at Scott Brown. You know, the idea that Republicans could take Ted Kennedy's seat, that maybe played for Obama and Biden's seat. Well, the folks who had the Republican nominations are people who the TEA Partiers would have called RINOs in years past: Mark Kirk, Mike Castle. These are pro-choice Republicans.
So what's going on sometimes in the anger doesn't really account for what's going on in the real grassroots.
COOPER: Interesting. John, appreciate it. As I said, we're going to be covering this for the next couple of nights.
You're going to meet one of the people behind the TEA Party movement. He's a guy who never paid much attention to politics until the day he decided he'd had enough. Take a look at what his personal tipping point was.
Plus, tonight's "Shot," parting ways with a panda. It's a sad day for those who knew and loved them. They're all right. They're just moving on. We'll tell you where they're going. We'll be right back.
COOPER: For the next two nights, "Welcome to the TEA Party". We're digging deeper on the grassroots movement that exploded across the country last year. Today in Nashville, as we mentioned, TEA Partiers kicked off their first convention. It runs through Saturday. Sarah Palin is the keynote speaker. Tickets were pricey compared to similar conventions, and that's caused some controversy.
The movement, though, is made up of hundreds of different groups. Its members are diverse. And tonight we wanted to introduce you to one of them.
Here's Randi Kaye.
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the moment Bob Porto started to change. It was September 2008.
BOB PORTO, TEA PARTY MEMBER: When the bank came calling and said, "You're going to pay us," I'm like, "How?"
KAYE (on camera): With what?
PORTO: Yes. How do you come up with that kind of money?
KAYE (voice-over): and so began Bob Porto's journey. His home- building business had dried up. And the bank wanted its $300,000 loan back on this house.
PORTO: There are those that are said to be too big to fail. And then there are those like myself who are too small to save. We need to focus on the real America which are the people, the people who are unemployed.
KAYE: Frustrated with his bank and his government, wondering why all that bailout money was bypassing everyday people like him, Porto did something that changed his world. He co-founded a TEA Party in his county. And today, he's chairman of the largest TEA Party in Arkansas.
(on camera): What does the TEA Party mean to you?
PORTO: TEA Party is a voice. The TEA Party are concerned citizens that felt left out of the system, that they weren't being listened to, that when -- it doesn't matter if it's a Republican or a Democrat. They're not listening to we, the people.
KAYE: Bob says he never paid much attention to politics until now. In the past year or so, he's probably protested here at the Arkansas state capitol about a dozen times. And like most members of the TEA Party, Bob is fighting for an end to government spending and an end to big government.
(voice-over): Before all this Bob Porto says he was an ordinary guy, a home builder married to the same woman for 30 years; two daughters, two cats, one named Spot.
Now he's a new voice in the most-watched, most-talked-about political movement sweeping the country.
Porto hasn't had a paycheck in more than a year. It's time, he says, for America to rise up.
(on camera): I've heard a lot of independents, a lot of TEA Partiers say, "We want to take our country back."
KAYE: Do you feel that way?
PORTO: I do. I do. We want to instill the fact that the founding fathers gave us values, and in those values were the basic foundations that created the greatness that America has -- has experienced.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bob Porto in here with Pulaski County TEA Party.
KAYE (voice-over): Bob Porto talks about freedom a lot. He says the government is trampling on his.
PORTO: There's an overburden in regulations. There's -- there's -- any time that we look at what the government imposes upon us that limits us then we are losing our freedom.
KAYE: To Porto, the federal government, the Republicans and Democrats, don't meet his needs and spend too much.
(on camera): Too much spending for you?
PORTO: What's that old saying? If the outgo exceeds the income then the upkeep is the downfall? How do you spend your way out of debt?
This is for we, the people.
KAYE (voice-over): As for those in Washington who say TEA Partiers' opposition to the government makes them un-American?
(on camera): So how do you feel about the TEA Partiers being called un-American?
PORTO: I think it will speak for itself when you look at the people, and you see what they stand for, and you take the time to visit with us. We're just Americans. We're patriotic. We believe that what made America great in its past, that we want to take that same energy and make America great again.
KAYE (voice-over): For this generation and those that will follow.
COOPER: So Randi, as you said there's a lot of different groups. Is Bob going to the convention in Nashville? Is he there? KAYE: No, Anderson. He's actually not here. He said he simply couldn't afford it. He couldn't afford the airfare. He couldn't afford the hotel room.
In fact, he told us that he went to Washington, D.C., for a TEA Party event not too long ago, and about 15 people chipped in to send him there.
So this is a guy, Anderson, who's been watching the bankers get their bonuses. Meanwhile, he's been cutting back on food for his family. That truck you saw us driving in, our story with him, that truck has 130,000 miles on it. The speedometer doesn't even work.
So you can see where his passion comes from. And a lot of people here are saying the same thing. They're frustrated. They want to move the country forward. They say they're tired of seeing the politicians pay more attention to the party than to the people.
COOPER: Randi, appreciate it.
For another view, go to AC360.com to read Ed Rollins' take on TEA Parties and why incumbents on Capitol Hill should be worried and maybe should learn about them.
Up next, horror off the coast of Florida; a kite surfer killed by sharks. Officials say he was literally surrounded by them. We have the latest on this story ahead.
And on a much lighter note, the great panda good-bye: Tai Shan (ph), the star of the National Zoo, is leaving the country.
We'll tell you where Tai Shan is going and take a look back at how many people watched the panda grow up.
COOPER: Let's get caught up on some other top stories. Kiran Chetry has the "360 Bulletin" -- Kiran.
CHETRY: Hey, Anderson.
Well, there's new information tonight in the death of actress Brittany Murphy. The Los Angeles Coroner's Office ruling the 32-year- old died of pneumonia, anemia and an overdose of prescription medication. Murphy went into cardiac arrest at her home back in December. Her death has been ruled an accident.
A deadly shark attack in Florida; it was a kite surfer killed Wednesday off the coast of Stuart Beach. It's about 100 miles north of Miami. Authorities say that the experienced kite surfer was about a quarter mile out from shore when he was surrounded by several sharks, bitten multiple times, and later died at the hospital.
Taking the oath on Capitol Hill, Scott Brown was sworn in today as senator from Massachusetts. The Republican, who won the seat in part on a wave of TEA Party sentiment, pledged to do the best job he can. His victory also brings an end to the Democrats' 60-seat supermajority.
And in Australia there is some bad news for '80s band Men at Work. A judge ruling that a flute solo -- there you hear it -- from one of their biggest hits, "Down Under," was actually stolen from a nursery rhyme.
CHETRY: An Australian -- an Australian schoolteacher, it was actually the estate for the schoolteacher. She passed away back in 1988. They say that, you know, they were suing for unpaid royalties. So do you think it was stolen? Let's listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(MUSIC: "DOWN UNDER," MEN AT WORK)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Are you kidding? That sounds nothing like it. Does that sound like it to you?
CHETRY: No. I don't think so at all. It's very strange. I tried to think what the heck happened here? They were very upset, by the way. They say it's -- they say that it's just not true.
COOPER: Also, this was back in 1980, what, 4? I mean, I'm not sure. I remember the '80s. This is when that song come out. Did the estate lawyers not know this song was around? I mean, I don't understand why it took so long for them to...
CHETRY: I don't know. It doesn't sound anything like it.
CHETRY: There's a weird -- there's some sort of weird bird in the background of that song. It sounds nothing like a flute.
COOPER: I don't get that. Not at all.
For tonight's "Shot," we watched them grow and play, and now we say farewell to two giant pandas. This is Tai Shan being rolled in a container that's now on a plane to China. The 4-year-old male was born in the National Zoo in Washington. He had company; also onboard, 3-year-old Mei Lan (ph). She was born at the Zoo Atlanta. Both were raised here. They actually belong to China. That's part of an agreement between the two countries. They're endangered animals, of course.
Tai Shan's nickname is Butterstick because that's how small he was at birth. Francis Nguyen who, with her husband, has grown very close to Tai Shan, has taken literally thousands of photographs with -- with him. We want to show you some of them tonight. We also want you to hear from Francis why Butterstick is so special. Watch. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
FRANCIS NGUYEN, PANDA ENTHUSIAST: When I first saw Tai Shan my jaw just dropped, and I was like, "Oh, my God." There's no words to describe the feeling.
Tai Shan is like a little angel. He's very engaging. His eyes are beautiful, and you feel connected to him.
When I watch the interaction between him and his mother, the way that she cares and nurtures him, so patient, and he's this rambunctious little bear that's very playful and never gives up and full of confidence.
He brought me a community of friendship and even I found love. You know, I met my husband at the panda exhibit, and my mom always said, you're never going to meet a guy when all you do is spend your time at the zoo taking pictures. But I did what I love, and love was right in front of me.
Pandas love being in the snow. He's so excitable. And he rolls down the hill with the snow.
This picture is very special to me. When I was taking the picture I didn't realize that Tai was looking at me, but I felt his big eyes, and it was just incredible to be that close to him, to hear him breathe.
I have two hearts when it comes to Tai going to China. There's a side of me that feels a great loss, as if you're losing your own child. And there's a side of me that thinks that it's for the better of the future, and his future, and to spread his genes.
But he's left me with a lot of gifts and a lot of good karma. It's ironic because the last week I found out that I was pregnant and that's the week I found out before he's leaving. So it's like one child gone and one child coming. I felt like that was a gift from him.
COOPER: I wouldn't be surprised if she named her child Tai Shan.
CHETRY: I know. Really cute.
Hey that's it for 360. Thanks for watching.
"LARRY KING" starts now.
I'll see you tomorrow night.