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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 02/17/14

Guests: Shawn Boburg, Xavier Becerra

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: It`s like the un-inspiration hour. Feeling positive about civil life and opportunity? Don`t do it. CHRIS HAYES, "ALL IN" HOST: Say, look, the guy we have right now, look at what he`s compared to. I think. It`s also part of it. MADDOW: Keeping everything in perspective. HAYES: Exactly. MADDOW: Thank you, man. Appreciate it. Thanks to you at home for being with us this hour. MSNBC`s Steve Kornacki and "Bergen Record" newspaper both have new scoops on the Chris Christie bridge lane scandal. Two big new developments in this story that have apparently started a whole new part of the investigation. And it starts with Leona Helmsley. Remember Leona Helmsley? Billionaire hotel and real estate developer. She earned and then cultivated a reputation for being heartless and cruel, particularly to her staff. She was miserly and abusive toward people but she left a fortune to her dog. She was known as the "Queen of Mean", and Leona Helmsley did not mind being thought of that way. She went to prison on federal tax evasion charges. If you remember her for nothing else, you might remember her famous quote attributed to her by her former housekeeper during the trial. Leona Helmsley reportedly said, we don`t pay taxes, only little people pay taxes. And she didn`t pay taxes until she got caught and then she had to go to the crowbar hotel. Leona Helmsley has passed on now, as has her very rich dog. But part of the sordid history of the land, the undeveloped land right next to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey, is that Leona Helmsley of all people once owned that land. In the 1960s the land had been owned by investors funding corporation. They got busted for hiring mobsters to bribe the mayor of Fort Lee into giving them what they wanted, with that parcel of land. The mayor in turn wore a wire for the FBI and the investors funding corp guys went to prison and never developed the land. So that it was still undeveloped when Leona Helmsley bought it in the 1980s. She planned to put up four big high-rises on that land. But those plans got scrapped when she, too, had to go to prison. Well, now that same parcel of land really is being developed. This time with no mention of prison at all. But the Leona Helmsley years of owning that property next to the George Washington bridge, Leona Helmsley years came up in a weird time in the investigation of the current bridge-related scandal in Chris Christie`s New Jersey. Now, remember that the bridge lanes were shut down in the George Washington Bridge in September. It was back in November of last year which was the time when really only the New Jersey press was covering the story. This was before David Wildstein had resigned, before Bill Baroni had resigned, before the governor or anyone else apologized for what happened on the bridge. This was November. It was when everybody involved in this scheme was still trying to get away with claiming the whole thing had been a traffic study. On November 13th, the head of the police officers union for the Port Authority police officers released a statement mocking the idea that Fort Lee had been punished by that bridge lane shutdown. Mocking the idea there was anything political involved at all in the bridge being shut down, mocking the idea that what happened on that bridge had been anything other than a simple traffic study. If anyone really believed that there was such a scheme, Paul Nunziato told the "Star-Ledger", quote, "Then I would suggest we`re going to find Jimmy Hoffa`s body on the Leona Helmsley property in Fort Lee". That`s the head of their union for the police officers who worked at the Port Authority, Port Authority Police Department. The head of their union telling the press, of course, what happened on that bridge was a traffic study. Anybody who tells you otherwise is a crazy conspiracy theorist and probably knows where Jimmy Hoffa is buried and probably has something to do with Leona Helmsley. It`s like a great New Jersey joke, right? The same official said publicly that reporters who were working on the story of what happened on that bridge were just being used by one side in the ongoing fight between New Jersey and New York at the Port Authority which he said was, quote, "like the sharks and the jets", from "West Side Story." This guy is like a quote machine, right? He`s a simile machine. He also repeatedly spoke about what happened on that bridge in ways that helped the people who were trying to minimize it and that mocked the people who thought the whole thing stunk and there was something really wrong there. The head of the police union characterized as, quote, "a load of garbage," an internal e-mail from Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye in which Mr. Foye harshly criticized the closures. That Patrick Foye e-mail was the one that blew the whistle on the shutdown of the lanes and said it was not only wrong, unauthorized but probably illegal. The head of the Port Authority Police Union called that e-mail a load of garbage. He also said that there were no first responders who were delayed by the traffic mess in Fort Lee, which was definitely not true. But he said at the time, quote, "was there any ambulance delay? No. Was there any police service delay? No." In fact, there were both police delays and ambulance delays because of the bridge shutdown. Fort Lee had been screaming their heads off about that for three months by then. But the head of the union for the Port Authority police officers said there hadn`t been any problem. Ambulance and police, they`d been fine. Was not true, but he said that publicly. He also said the criticism of the lanes being shut down was a load of garbage. It was a traffic study. Then, of course, in January, those e-mails came out showing the traffic problems in Fort Lee had apparently been ordered up by Governor Chris Christie`s governor chief of staff for an unexplained political reason. And since then, the head of the union for the Port Authority police Paul Nunziato has been entirely silent on the issue. He`s made no corrections to his previous statements. No additions to his previous statements. Nothing. Which, itself, is remarkable because the whole cover-up, the whole cover story that it was a traffic study on that bridge, the whole cover-up story was attributed to him. And please excuse the shaky video on this one, but they pinned it to this Port Authority police official. They pinned it to him. And he hasn`t said anything about it since. Watch this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) STATE REP. JOHN WISNIEWSKI (D), NEW JERSEY: So why September? I mean, this has existed for years. Why now? Why September? What transpired to have somebody say, you know, we ought to look at having less lanes for Fort Lee? BILL BARONI, FORMER PORT AUTHORITY OFFICIAL: Well, as I said in my opening remarks, at some point in late July, members of the Port Authority police spoke to Davis Wildstein. So, it was triggered by a conversation in late July. WISNIEWSKI: Who were these police officers that raise the issue that we ought to look at this? BARONI: The leadership of the Port Authority police. WISNIEWSKI: Names? BARONI: Paul Nunziato, the president of the Port Authority PBA. Mike DeFillipis, the delegate who worked on the George Washington Bridge. WISNIEWSKI: So, the head of the Port Authority PBA raised this as an issue? BARONI: That`s correct. WISNIEWSKI: That`s his responsibility to, I mean, he`s got a traffic mitigation responsibility? It just seems like an unusual thing to raise -- (CROSSTALK) BARONI: I don`t think -- two things, I don`t think there`s anything unusual about people who represent police officers talking about traffic safety. And second, given the fact that one of the two people actually worked at the bridge, I don`t think it`s unusual at all. Of course, police officers raise traffic concerns. WISNIEWSKI: So this traffic concern that was raised by these officers, is it reduced to writing, is there an internal memorandum? BARONI: No. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: No, it wasn`t put in writing. Nothing calling for this traffic study turns out was ever written down. Also the supposed results of the traffic study. It turns out those results were never written down, either. That`s because there was no traffic study. It was a cover-up. For whatever the real reason was that someone in the governor`s office told the Port Authority to mess with Fort Lee on purpose, to mess with the children of those people who weren`t going to be voting for Chris Christie come re-election time. The subpoenas released last week from the state legislative committee investigating the bridge scandal showed that their investigation is focusing to a significant extent now on the cover-up. On the traffic study story which was a false cover-up story. Who was in on that? The new reporting from the "Bergen Record" and our own Steve Kornacki now has further wrenched attentions specifically to the Port Authority police an their potential role not just in promulgating the false cover story about the traffic study but also their potential role in the overall shutdown scheme. During the bridge lane closures, as traffic Armageddon started to first take shape on the first day of the closures, on Monday morning, September 9th, the man who arranged the shutdown of the bridge lanes, David Wildstein, sent an e-mail saying he was going to take a ride with Chip and see how it looks. Well, MSNBC`s Steve Kornacki has now reported that Chip is likely to be a Port Authority police lieutenant who has close and long-standing family ties with Governor Chris Christie. They grew up in the same town. They had known each other since they were kids. The police lieutenant was at one point the coach for Chris Christie`s son`s hockey team. And he just happened to be the police officer who drove around the architect of the bridge lane closures on the first morning that they were happening, presumably in order to assess just how much havoc had been brought down on Fort Lee. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) STEVE KORNACKI, UP: We have new information to report to you this morning about the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal -- a connection that has not been discovered or reported anywhere else before now. It involves a man who was apparently present when those access lanes were shut down and whose family has deep personal and political ties to Governor Chris Christie that go back decades. When David Wildstein surveyed the chaos caused by the lane closures, his tour guide was apparently a Port Authority police lieutenant who had known Chris Christie since his childhood, who had coached Chris Christie`s children in youth sports. Friendship dating back to their youth. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Steve Kornacki reporting on what might just be a coincidence. That a Port Authority police lieutenant who was on the scene when the bridge shutdown happened, who chauffeured the guy who organized the lane closures to see the chaos that he caused that day, who text messaged with David Wildstein about the effects of the traffic jam once it was under way and who sent at least one e-mail about the lane closure`s plan to his superior officer the day before it happened. That police lieutenant might just be a coincidence is also a childhood friend of Governor Chris Christie. The governor`s office released a statement to us tonight saying that Governor Christie has never had any conversations about this issue presumably the issue of the bridge lane closures, with Chip, with Lieutenant Chip Michaels or his brother, Jeff Michaels who is a powerful lobbyist in New Jersey who was also mentioned in Steve`s report. The executive director of the Port Authority has now asked the Port Authority inspector general and the Port Authority police chief to investigate the role of at least that one Port Authority police officer who apparently drove around David Wildstein on the first morning of the closures. Other reporting tonight suggests that the new internal Port Authority investigation may be broader than just that one officer, that it may be a wider look at the role of Port Authority police on the bridge that day and their role in the overall scheme. During the bridge lane closures, the mayor of Fort Lee, this was on Thursday of the week that the bridge lanes were shut down, so this is day four, on Thursday the 9th of -- excuse me, the 12th of September, the mayor of Fort Lee wrote to the Port Authority pleading for help, pleads. It has been four days of this in our town. We are totally gridlocked. Commutes that should take minutes are taking hours. Kids cannot get to school. People are missing work. It`s been four days now. You have to stop this. And he said this, specifically, as to why it might be happening. The mayor wrote this, quote, "Many members of the public indicated to me the Port Authority police officers are advising commuters in response to their complaints that this recent traffic debacle is the result of a decision that I as mayor recently made." According to the mayor, he says he found out even as the bridge lane shutdown was still in effect, he says that Port Authority police were telling people stuck in the traffic jam that the traffic jam was the mayor`s fault and they should blame him. They should call him and complain. Now, to be clear, the police officers from Fort Lee, the Fort Lee police department, they had no idea what was going on with the shutdown. Remember, they were totally blindsided. They had no notice, no warning, no explanation. What we`re talking about is not the Fort Lee Police Department but the Port Authority police and apparently, or at least reportedly, they were the ones telling motorists, hey, blame the mayor of Fort Lee, why don`t you call him and complain? The "Bergen Record" now has tracked down people who say that, in fact, that is what happened to them when they were trying to commute on those days. Quote, "As motorists slowly rolled toward the bridge`s toll booths, many rolled down their windows and asked police what was causing so much congestion. A pattern soon emerged, aggravated motorists were told by Port Authority police officers at the scene that they should call the mayor or town officials." One motorist who commutes in and out of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, explained to the "Bergen Record" in an interview, quote, "As he approached the single access lane to the bridge`s tollbooths, an officer sought him out, sought the driver out. The driver says, `I didn`t motion to the police officer. He kind of motioned to me.` `Are you frustrated?` the officer reportedly asked. The man replied, `Well, what`s going on?` The man says the officer then told him, `Call the mayor`s office to complain.`" The chief of police of the Port Authority Police Department and the department`s inspector general are now investigating these claims. The Port Authority police union is making no comment on the matter, at least thus far. Efforts by MSNBC to reach Lieutenant Chip Michaels have so far been unsuccessful. But what was the involvement of the Port Authority police in this scheme? When the head of their police union was credited with the traffic study cover story, and he, himself, advanced that cover story in the press, did he know that it was false? When he was mocking people who didn`t believe the traffic study thing as believing that Leona Helmsley property had Jimmy Hoffa buried on it, too, when he was using all those color analogies and similes to say that people just didn`t get it and the traffic study was obviously all that happened here and anybody else looking into it was being used or being stupid, did he know that the traffic study that he was saying, what happened there, did he know that was false? So far, he is not talking. His response to the first round of subpoenas in this investigation was to tell the investigating committee that he had no documents relevant to their investigation at all. He was exhibit "G" in the first big dump of documents in this investigation and there were no documents in exhibit "G." Mr. Nunziato has since been subpoenaed again. When Bill Baroni finished up his cover story testimony to the legislature, when he told the legislature it was a traffic study, it was a traffic study. As soon as he was finished with that false testimony that day, the first text message that he sent to David Wildstein as soon as he finished his testimony was this -- three question marks. That`s it. Just question marks. Nothing else. David Wildstein responded immediately within the same minute, "PAPD said all was fine." PAPD, Port Authority Police Department. Only after that, in the next minute, did Bill Baroni ask for feedback specifically from Trenton, whereupon David Wildstein passed on the rave reviews apparently from the governor`s staff about how well Bill Baroni did delivering that false cover story about the traffic study -- the traffic study that was supposedly developed by the Port Authority police. The "all was fine" report from the Port Authority police, that was the first feedback that Bill Baroni got on the cover story. Port Authority police said all was fine. The Port Authority police have been right in the mix of this thing from the very beginning. As the investigation turns toward them in full, does that mean we`re going to get closer to an explanation for what actually happened here? And why it happened? And who did it? Hold on. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) WISNIEWSKI: Who were these police officers that raise the issue that we ought to look at this? BARONI: The leadership of the Port Authority police. WISNIEWSKI: Names? BARONI: Paul Nunziato, the president of the Port Authority PBA. Mike DeFillipis, the delegate who worked on the George Washington Bridge. WISNIEWSKI: So, the head of the Port Authority PBA raised this as an issue? BARONI: That`s correct. PAUL NUNZIATO, PRESIDENT, PORT AUTHORITY PBA: Stood shoulder to shoulder with me and my members on all our security issues. We think he`s a strong leader. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: That`s the head of the Port Authority Police Department union at the day -- on the day that his union endorsed Governor Chris Christie`s re-election in New Jersey. That was actually one of the first major endorsements that Christie got in his re-election effort. That same Port Authority police official is also the person who was credited with having hatched the idea for these supposed traffic study on the George Washington Bridge -- traffic study which was used as a cover story to obscure the real reasons the lanes on that bridge were shut down. Joining us now is Shawn Boburg of the "Bergen Record." As of last night, Shawn is the winner of the prestigious George Polk Journalism Award for his excellent and groundbreaking coverage of the bridge lane closings. Shawn, congratulations on that Polk. It`s richly deserved. I`m very excited about that. SHAWN BOBURG, BERGEN RECORD: Thank you. I appreciate it. MADDOW: Couple things that have broken. One is the news substantiating the early claims from the Fort Lee mayor that Port Authority police told people who were stuck in the traffic jam that they ought to blame the mayor. Why is that an important development? BOBURG: Well, significant because on its face, it doesn`t quite make sense. The mayor of Fort Lee doesn`t control the bridge, doesn`t control the three lanes that blend into the one that cause the mayhem. So, the idea that the mayor of Fort Lee would be responsible is just wrong. There`s no scenario under which that would make sense. So, that raises a logical question. Why were police saying that? Was it a coordinated attempt to send a message? Obviously, some of the people who were waiting in those lines and were frustrated were constituents of the mayor and they come from surrounding areas. So, they`re all being told to contact the hall. We do know the mayor of Fort Lee was contacted by he says dozens of frustrated motorists. So, again, if it doesn`t make sense, the question is why were they telling motorists that? MADDOW: And is the -- I guess is the sort of street-level knowledge in north Jersey such that your average police officer working on that bridge, working in that vicinity would know that actually it makes no sense to blame the mayor of Fort Lee? Does everyone understand the division of labor between didn`t government agencies there that the bridge belongs to the Port Authority? BOBURG: It`s hard to get to officers` heads, but Fort Lee police and Port Authority police have worked together at the bridge for a long time. There`s certainly a level of understanding of what each entity`s responsibilities are and where their control ends. So, I don`t think it`s a stretch to assume that police officers who are stationed at that bridge know that the Fort Lee mayor has very little control over the bridge. MADDOW: There`s also the story about the Port Authority police lieutenant who apparently did a ride-around with David Wildstein the first morning of the bridge closures in order to presumably see the damage caused by those lanes being shut down. He is somebody Steve Kornacki`s reporting on who has longstanding family connection to the governor. The governor tonight denying ever speaking to him about this matter. What do you think is the significance there? BOBURG: Well, for me the significance is you have another name, someone else who appears to have been aware that this was causing problems and have -- and was in a car with the same person who planned it. If you recall in the documents, there`s a text that says, Fort Lee traffic disaster. Based on Steve Kornacki`s reporting, that`s a text message from Chip Michaels. And so, in the context of other comments that seem to relish the traffic problems that were occurring in Fort Lee, that looks similar in content. MADDOW: It`s at least -- it is at least a statement of fact. We know it was a Fort Lee traffic disaster. The question is, if in context, was that expressing relish over that or if that was the goal? And that we still don`t know. BOBURG: Right. MADDOW: What about the fact that among the ways that Chip Michaels turns up in the documents we`ve seen thus far, it seems like he and several other Port Authority police officials knew about the shutdown in advance. They knew it was coming at least a day in advance. Is that important? BOBURG: Well, we have indications before that certain faction of Port Authority police knew about this and made preparations the weekend before. The real issue here was there`s no communication with Fort Lee police. When you have the traffic backing up, spilling into Fort Lee`s local streets, that`s where you get the public safety problems and the fact they had no advanced knowledge really threatened some first responders and other public safety efforts. MADDOW: Shawn, let me ask you also about Paul Nunziato. He received a subpoena in the first round of subpoenas on this. It was notable because he turned in documents. He said he had nothing to respond to this subpoena with. He has since been subpoenaed again with a more specific list of documents. He did not ask for an extension we know in terms of that second subpoena when almost everybody did. And we know that Bill Baroni credited him, I guess you`d say credited him, with having come up with the traffic study idea and he really defended that idea aggressively in the press. What should we understand about him as a figure in this story? BOBURG: Well, there might not be any documents yet that explain what his thoughts were and how this idea was conceived and his role in it. I can tell you that I interviewed him personally in a Port Authority commissioners meeting and he was all behind the idea that he conceived of this plan, that he pitched it to David Wildstein over breakfast. And in a statement issued in November, he called the study, the traffic study, admirable. Now, after the documents surfaced, his spokesman issued a follow-up response saying that they were disturbed and shocked that there were political overtones to the traffic. MADDOW: Wow, has he been willing to talk to you again since then? Since all these coming -- BOBURG: No, he hasn`t. MADDOW: Yes, me neither. Shawn Boburg, George Polk Award-winning reporter as of last night for the "Bergen Record" -- Shawn, congratulations again, thanks very much. BOBURG: Thank you so much. MADDOW: Thanks. All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: One of the greatest mascots in all of college sports belongs to the University of Oklahoma. This awesome pair of Welsh ponies are known respectively as boomer an sooner. If you go to a college football game in Norman, Oklahoma, you will hear the chant, boomer, sooner, ring out across the stadium. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CROWD: Boomer! Sooner! Boomer! Sooner! (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Boomer, sooner! Something that is etched into the DNA of every Oklahoman. But it is the boomer part of that equation, specifically the boom in the boomer part of that equation that is now fraying the nerves of people across the great state of Oklahoma. What is happening in Oklahoma right now is dramatic and a little bit scary, and apparently it`s very, very loud. And that story is coming up next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: There has been an earthquake in Oklahoma. Actually, there have been 103 of them just since Friday, seriously. This is the data from the Oklahoma Geological Survey. They keep updating it. You see, on the left there is the date and then the time. Then they give you the exact latitude and longitude, the exact location where the quake was centered. Over on the right, they`ve got the magnitude of the quake. If you`re in Oklahoma and you think you feel the ground shake, "A", you`re probably right, there have been 103 freaking earthquakes in Oklahoma since Friday. But "B", you can also go to this list online to check for sure and see how close it was to you. This is interesting here. This is the column next to the magnitude column on the right hand side. This ends up being important for these kinds of quakes specifically in Oklahoma. This is what shows you the depth, how deep into the earth the epicenter of the quakes are. And that matters because apparently the more shallow earthquakes are in Oklahoma, well, those are the ones that are more likely to sound like bombs going off. They make huge explosion sounds. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let`s talk about some of the recent earth quakes. You`ve been feeling them. If you`re like most folks you`ve been hearing some of them as well. They feel like a daily occurrence in Oklahoma, certainly have been the last few days. Three-point-five, that`s the biggest one to hit Edmond. Happened around 8:00 p.m. last night. Biggest one the last couple of days, anyway. (INAUDIBLE) talked to a scientist about all those loud booms. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This one`s just a few inches. REPORTER: There are many new cracks in Nancy York`s newly built home. Her tile floor, her ceiling and her walls, all are damaged. Not only did she feel eight tremblers, she heard them. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Like bombs going off. It`s just a huge, loud noise and reverb from the boom that shakes the entire house. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: That`s from KOCO, the ABC affiliate in Oklahoma City, reporting this weekend. There`s been no letup since that report this weekend, 103 quakes since Friday at this point. A lot of the recent ones aren`t small. What`s going on in Oklahoma now is kind of intense. Even if you only look at quakes of magnitude 2.5 or more, so the bigger quakes, check this out. These are the number of those sized quakes in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012. Oklahoma had on this count, 40 to 100 good sized earthquakes per year for the last few years. Then there was a really big spike last year, a record for the state up to 222 earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 or greater. Now look at this, already in 2014, there have been 94 good sized earthquakes. We`re less than two months into the year. If Oklahoma keeps up this pace, the state is set to have more than 700 significant earthquakes this year. Already, some of the quakes are big enough to be damaging people`s homes. One of the quakes last weekend on February 8th ripped open some pretty good sized cracks in the Logan County jail, in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Oklahoma has had more than 100 earthquakes since Friday. Today`s only Monday. And a bunch of them were accompanied by huge booming explosion sounds. Quite a few of them were big enough to cause damage to homes and other buildings. Now, the state has hired a new seismologist for the Oklahoma Geological Survey to try to figure out what exactly is going on. And there is this fancy Web site that we linked to at our blog today that lets you keep track of the quakes as they happen. So, it`s not like the state of Oklahoma is in denial or anything. You know what, dozens of earthquakes every day? It`s totally possible, of course, that it`s all one big coincidence. The earth beneath the Oklahoma City suburbs is just being churned up by some big swing away ice crusher or something, right? It will all settle down on its own. One big coincidence. Maybe that`s what`s happening. But I will note when the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport needed to stop its earthquake spike a few years ago, they temporarily shut down the wells that were injecting fracking fluid into the ground at high pressure on the airport property and lo and behold, those earthquakes stopped. Everybody knows that would be a crazy experiment for central Oklahoma, right? But so is 103 earthquakes just since the end of last week. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: In 1958, John F. Kennedy was a U.S. senator running for re- election and introduced this bill which would have banned some specific guns and ammo from being imported into the United States. Specifically, JFK`s bill would have banned foreign weapons that had been manufactured for foreign militaries from being imported here into the U.S. to be sold to American civilians. Now, the most popular weapon that fit that description at the time was this one -- an Italian rifle called a Carcano. This kind of rifle was the most popular foreign gun, originally manufactured for a foreign military that was sold here in the U.S. at the time that Senator Kennedy introduced legislation to ban the sale of this gun. Here`s another look at that gun. The man in this photo is Lee Harvey Oswald. He would later use that kind of gun, the one he`s holding in that picture, to kill President John F. Kennedy. Mr. Oswald was able to buy that gun legally by ordering it through the mail. He used a coupon that he clipped out of "American Riflemen" magazine, the magazine of the NRA. Lee Harvey Oswald was able to buy that gun he later used to kill the president because the bill that then-Senator John F. Kennedy introduced that would have banned the sale of that gun, that bill was defeated in a concerted effort led by the NRA. Lee Harvey Oswald bought the gun in March 1963. He killed President Kennedy with it that November. In 1963, following the assassination of the president, there was a big push immediately to try to reform gun laws around the country. Gallup polling following the president`s death showed that more than 80 percent of the country wanted congress to enact the strictest possible gun restrictions, but then nothing happened. The new President Lyndon Johnson tried to get gun reform passed in the wake of the JFK assassination but wasn`t able to get anything through Congress even as he was able to get so much more through Congress. It was not only Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were also assassinated in 1968 that anything did finally get done at the federal level. One of the reforms was this -- the Gun Control Act of 1968, which among other things banned the mail-order sales of rifles and shotguns and associated ammunition. That last part of the law addressed one of the aspects that had made the JFK assassination possible. Lee Harvey Oswald bought the gun he`s holding, legally by ordering it through the mail using a coupon in the NRA publication. The gun control bill signed into law in 1968, which is hard to get past made that sort of mail-order purchase illegal. It more tightly regulated guns and ammunition sold between states through the pail. And the NRA always hated it. The way the NRA got rid of it ultimately was really weird, weird in the technical sense of the word weird, as in strange, as in they did something that almost never happens. The NRA finally got the Senate to vote to repeal that no mail order guns and ammunition bill in 1985. The Senate was Republican controlled at the time and they passed a repeal of LBJ`s old law. But the House at the time was not controlled by the Republicans. It was controlled by the Democrats and the bill got bottled up in committee in the Democratic-led House. The Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee was not going to let that thing come to the floor and the speaker was not going to make it happen. And so, the NRA polled rank. The NRA essentially told Democrats, you know what, you may technically have control over the House of Representatives, but we the NRA control more than you do. We control more members of Congress than you do or your party does and know how to get this done another way. That was one of the only times this has ever worked in American history. The NRA went around the Democratic House leadership, they got a majority of the members of the House to sign a petition, saying they wanted a chance to vote on that legislation, even though the House leadership wouldn`t put it on the floor. And when you get a majority of members of the House to say they want something to come up for a vote, and they all put their name on a petition insisting on that, that is called a discharge petition. In 1986, it worked. Over the objections of people who were ostensibly in control of Congress, the NRA got that repeal passed. And Ronald Reagan signed it into law May 19th, 1986. And that`s why you can buy at least ammo Lee Harvey Oswald style now. You can once again do it by mail. That exceedingly, exceedingly rare tactic that the NRA used in the mid-`80s, that is the new proposed method of attack. That is the new proposed legislative tactic that Democrats want to use. Democrats who do not control the House, but they want to vote on a piece of legislation that ostensibly does have the support of a majority of members of the House. They say they`re going to use a discharge petition to try and bypass House Speaker John Boehner and the Republican leadership to try to force immigration reform to the floor. It`s already passed the Senate. So if Democrats could make this work in the House, then immigration reform would be on its way to President Obama`s desk. Can they do it? Today, this happened at the White House. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our lord as we now go to do what you called us to do today. We give thanks and we are together in Christ`s name. Amen. CROWD: Amen. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Line one. Who`s leading line one? (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: United Methodist Bishop Julius Calvin Trimble leading a prayer and then dispatching a couple of dozen immigration advocates and faith leaders to take their positions. They line up and took their spots. They knelt before the White House gates. They prayed for immigration reform, they prayed an end of deportations. They prayed in front of the White House singing "Amazing Grace" and "This Little Light of Mine." Nearby, D.C. police officers started preparing to move in, prepping their plastic hand cuffs, preparing to make the arrest, and then they did. They started by taking away the activists` signs and then they started slowly handcuffing them one by one, escorting them to the police vans where the clergy members and the activists were photographed with a number and loaded into the vans. After one van was filled, they moved on loading activists into the next van. One by one, until they were all arrested, 32 of them in all today. There`s no direct line causality between getting arrested while you pray in front of the White House and getting a piece of legislation passed. The direct action today at the White House where 32 faith leaders and activists got arrested is moral persuasion. It`s supposed to try to change people`s hearts and dramatize the importance of this situation. Tactic like this today and legislative tactics like a discharge petition, what this tells you is this is now a movement that is at a point of pulling out all the stops. This is trying everything that`s in their playbook and more. Is this desperation born out of hopelessness, or is there actual hope they could win? Joining us now is Congressman Xavier Becerra. He`s chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. And he floated this idea of the discharge petition last week at the House Democrats retreat. Congressman Becerra, thank you so much for being with us. REP. XAVIER BECERRA (D), CALIFORNIA: Rachel, good to be with you. MADDOW: Let me ask you if this turn toward something, as radical and ambitious as a discharge petition, the kind of direct action we`re seeing now with multiple arrests all over the country, including faith leaders at the White House today -- is this a sign of hope something could happen or is this a sign of desperation? BECERRA: Not only is it a sign of hope, Rachel, as you said, it`s a sign of a movement. This is not going to stop. Elections do have consequences. While we elected in 2012 a president who is ready to do immigration reform, ready to raise the minimum wage, we also saw the country elect a Republican House. Even though Democrats got over 1 million votes more throughout the 435 congressional districts than did Republicans, Republicans retained the House and as a result these elections have consequences. And we need to have a movement to show the recalcitrant Republicans that we can get things done. MADDOW: Have you spoken with Speaker Boehner or Mr. Cantor or any of the other house Republican leadership about this issue? Are you convinced that there`s no way through them, you`re going to have to go around them in order to get this done? BECERRA: Well, even with the discharge petition, we can`t go around them. We still need Republicans for any of these discharge petitions that might be filed. We announced that we wanted to do a discharge petition to increase the minimum raise to $10.10. We know there are Republicans who support that. Whether they will sign the discharge petition to help us put that on the floor of the House and get it signed to become the law, we don`t know. There`s a possibility of doing something like that for immigration reform. We`d like to see equal pay for equal work. We`d like to make sure a number of things get done. Too many Republicans are talking about going home, forgetting about doing anything more for this calendar year. And that seems a waste not only of taxpayer money but a waste of potential to get this country back on its footing that it needs to have. MADDOW: Democrats have been remarkably unified in the minority. Something that I know was the subject of a lot of discussion at last week`s House Democratic retreat. If you could count on Democrats to absolutely stick together on the minimum wage, absolutely stick together on immigration reform, what you`d be talking about there is about a dozen and a half Republicans that you would need to agree to work with you to make these things happen. Do you have a strategy to try to bring about leverage on 18 or 17 or 18 Republicans in order to get that to happen? BECERRA: Well, as we saw happen last week with the default vote where 99 percent of Democrats voted to make sure that the country did not default on repayment of its debts and only a handful of Republicans voted with us, about 30 of them, we think that there are more than 30 Republicans ready to vote for immigration reform. We hope that there are more than 30 Republicans ready to vote for a wage increase of the minimum wage. We have to try to work with them to try to get there because we know publicly many have said they`re for immigration reform or minimum wage increase. But it`s tough because right now I`d say there are too many Republicans who are putting party before country and hoping that they can just skip out of town and wait until the election. MADDOW: Congressman Xavier Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, consistently one of the most outspoken members on the issue of immigration reform, the need to do that as a country. Thank you for your time tonight, sir. It`s nice to have you. BECERRA: Thank you. MADDOW: I will say it is underappreciated in beltway commentary on what`s going on in Washington right now and national reporting in general, how much of a strategic asset it is for the Democratic Party that the Republicans are so fractured. The Republicans are in schismatic disarray. And that is not just entertainment for liberals. It`s an opportunity, a strategic opportunity for Democrats if they can figure out how to peel off enough of them on enough of the right issues that they can get stuff done without the Republican leadership. That`s the next few months. That`s the rest of this year in Washington if anything`s going to happen. We`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: You are not going to believe this, but they closed another school in Charleston, West Virginia today. Teachers at Grandview Elementary today reported smelling that licoricey odor of that chemical that spilled into the local water supply last month. They smelled that smell. Some of the teachers got sick. And so, they sent the kids early today and promised to flush the pipes yet again. That chemical spilled out of a nearly unregulated aboveground storage tank on January 9th, everybody in Charleston gets their water from the same source, from the same tributary where that spill happened. And officially the water in and around Charleston is now OK to drink. It`s hard to know for sure, of course, because most homes are not getting tested. But the National Guard has been testing the water in local schools. And that`s where the story gets really strange and kind of just persistently unsettling. So, remember, the spill is back in January. February 5th they close down two schools south of town after a teacher fainted and students started feeling nauseated and dizzy with burning eyes. The air smelled of licorice. But the water at both of those schools tested negative for the chemical. The next day three more schools in Charleston closed after people there reported smelling the chemical and started getting sick. The water in all three of those schools also tested negative. The next day, the water at a Charleston high school turned up positive for the chemical, but people there were not feeling sick. So, they kept the school open and just flushed the pipes again. A week ago today, another positive test, this time in a water fountain at an elementary school 500 feet from the river -- another positive test. And again, they decided not to close the school. Then, today, Grandview Elementary, where they have tested the water three times, where the water has passed the test three times. Today, teachers showed up, noticed the smell of licorice, they reported headaches and feeling sick. The school district`s new rapid response team deployed a team to show up and check it out. The team showed up and said, yes, we smell the chemical. And because that I guess is the basis on which the school superintendent is now making decisions, they called off school for the day at Grandview. Well, tonight the test results from Grandview Elementary came back, and they`re negative. So, good? Even with all the teachers getting sick, we`re happy with the negative test? Or does that just creep us out about the test? When last we left West Virginia`s efforts to try to retroactively fix this problem the governor was meeting privately with industry. Governor Earl Tomblin had announced a bill to regulate the kind of aboveground storage tanks that caused this mess in Charleston. Governor Tomblin started workshopping that bill in private with the industry groups that would be governed by that proposed legislation. Surprise of all surprises -- it turns out the captains of West Virginia industry had a long list of ways to improve that proposed bill. They suggested lighter penalties for themselves and lots of exemptions for themselves. Look at just a partial list of the exemptions that was published by the "Charleston Daily Mail." Exempted from the new regulations on these aboveground storage tanks are tanks holding just water, tanks on farms, tanks with 1,100 gallons or less of motor fuel or heating oil, some propane tanks, some tanks storing waste water. This one reads like a riddle in the paper`s report. Look, an exemption for any aboveground storage tank smaller than 1,100 gallons but larger than 500 gallons not covered by other portions of the bill but situated within 500 feet of a water source. Why would that be an exemption for that kind of tank specifically? Seven hundred pounds sitting next to -- 700 gallons sitting next to the river, we don`t regulate that? How can that be? Who is trying to will that specific exemption into law? Last week, a state delegate named Stephen Skinner asked a room full of lobbyists and lawmakers if any of them could explain the exemption for aboveground tanks of that size within that distance of the water. He asked, does anybody understand that exemption? The answer was no. Nobody had an explanation for it. After the meeting, delegate Skinner had something else he said he wanted to know about the politics in his state. He said, quote, "Why is the culture of West Virginia such that we can`t get something really smart done except after we poison people?" Which may be a rhetorical question, but when you cannot trust even the water in your kids` drinking fountain at school, or the test that`s supposed to tell you whether it`s safe. When you`re playing the odds on which day fourth grade might be toxic, the rhetorical has a way of suddenly becoming real and politically relevant. And I think West Virginia is not done with this one yet. Not with the consequences. Not with the call to get something really smart done. Not with any of it. It is still a mess. This is not a story that`s over. Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL". Have a great night. THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END