Return to Transcripts main page

Cuomo Prime Time

Letter Sent Before Collapse Warned Damage Was Accelerating; Biden Touts Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal In Wisconsin; Sprinter Gabby Thomas Headed To Tokyo Olympics After Winning Women's 200M In Record-Breaking Time. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired June 29, 2021 - 21:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[21:00:00]

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That led to the return of a lot of the residents there.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: I got to say, it's really interesting. And you went and looked at other buildings--

TODD: Yes.

BERMAN: --in this area, in the North Tower, to your eye, look even better than those other buildings.

TODD: Right.

BERMAN: Brian Todd, thank you so much for that, your report.

TODD: Thanks.

BERMAN: Really important.

All right, that is all from Surfside for us tonight.

The news continues. So, let's hand it over to Chris for "CUOMO PRIME TIME."

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: All right, thank you very much, John.

I am Chris Cuomo and welcome to PRIME TIME.

It is Surfside, day six. We learned tonight another body was found in the rubble. That means 12 have been confirmed dead. And I suggest to you that that is the only number that we can be sure of, in terms of how many might be lost.

Tonight, we're going to test the idea of how many are missing? Is it 150? Who decided that and how?

Here's what we do know. First responders have now moved approximately 3 million pounds of concrete. 210 rescue workers are on that mound at one time. The fires have been put out. They are still struggling with stability, but they are doing the job.

Today, we also learned a little bit more about the moment of tragedy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I see many people on their balconies. The building is gone. There's no elevators. There is nothing. I mean, it almost resembles the World Trade Center.

Some people are evacuating say it sounded like they heard a bomb.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: Now each day, the desire for answers, understandably, grows.

State authorities should be carrying the responsibility. The Governor said rightly, Governor DeSantis, "We need answers." Yes. And it is his job to start the process to getting them.

We're waiting on the formation of some group to discover what can be discovered here, to give families closure, and to make sure other buildings are maintained the right way.

The Mayor of Miami-Dade said today she's very supportive of the pursuit by the state attorney to open a grand jury investigation, to probe this collapse. Is that the best way to do this? And when will that happen? We have to keep pressing on this issue in the weeks to come.

Also, there is now a letter that has surfaced from the Board President of Champlain Towers South, to residents, from less than three months ago. She warned then about the pressing need for millions of dollars' worth of repairs.

And we quote, "The observable damage such as in the garage has gotten significantly worse since the initial inspection. Concrete deterioration is accelerating. Roof situation got much worse, so extensive roof repairs had to be incorporated."

The initial inspection she was referring to was that 2018 report we told you about that found major structural damage to the concrete below the pool deck, cracking and spalling in the parking garage.

Of course, speaking of the parking garage, and what's going on around the pool, we showed you these pictures, taken by a pool contractor, just two days before the collapse. He told the "Miami Herald," he saw standing water and cracks in concrete, underneath the pool deck.

So, what are these? Are they pieces of a puzzle? Was this something that they should have known? Was there foreseeable risk of catastrophe? We can't seem to nail that part down.

The lawyer for the condo association points to the fact that "No, that was never there. And if it were, why would the Board members have stayed in the building?" Fair point, but the question is did they miss fair warning?

We have Surfside Town Commissioner Eliana Salazar with us - Salzhauer with us right now.

It's good to have you. Sorry about the name. COVID brain!

ELIANA SALZHAUER, SURFSIDE TOWN COMMISSIONER: That's OK. Thank you for having me.

CUOMO: Let me ask you something. You hear me at the top? This 150 number that we have, I heard another local official talking about it. And now they say it's 149. But how do they know? How do we know that that number is accurate, because we all keep saying it?

SALZHAUER: That's exactly right. We don't really know exactly who was in the building. People Airbnb their apartments. Friends have friends over. Neighbors have neighbors over. You never really know who's going to be in that apartment.

Everyone is not accounted for. And everyone may never be accounted for, unless family comes forward and says "I haven't heard from so and so, and they were going to Miami." But there may be people that don't have family that don't come forward. We're not going to know.

CUOMO: Well, that's kind of weird and unsatisfying, isn't it? I mean, I know that there's supposedly some system in place of reaching out. Well, how long would that take? I mean, this should be something that you're either able to know, or no, you don't know.

And who is "They?" Who's doing the counting?

SALZHAUER: Well, there's so many organizations involved in this. This is not - this is not Surfside-scene.

Surfside is sort of the lowest person on the totem pole here with that scene. That scene is being handled by Miami-Dade County, by Fire Rescue. And then when they leave, I think Homicide's taking over.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Feds showed up at some point. I mean, we are - we're a small town. We're a small town. We're not prepared for a tragedy of this magnitude. I don't know that any town is, but we certainly aren't.

[21:05:00]

And so, we are really trying to use our resources as best as possible, and defer to the experts. And that's what we've done a good job of, bringing in some real heavy-hitters, to help solve this mystery.

The mystery of who was in that building? Hey, if someone got lucky that night, we don't know, right? We're not going to know if someone had family over, if someone had their girlfriend over that night, if someone had relatives that flew in.

There was a family that was staying there that wasn't supposed to arrive till the next day. Well as bad luck would have it, they decided to go a day early. And, this is their fate. But we don't know.

But it's only been a few - I mean it's been less than a week. In time, we'll have a full accounting of everyone. In time, we want the families to have closure. And in time, we want answers. More importantly, we want to make sure this never happens again, and find out how this happened.

CUOMO: All right, so we'll keep an eye on that. Because look, if for no other reason, that if it doesn't wind up netting to zero, at some point, who has been found alive, God willing, if a miracle can still happen, who was found there, and who was never found, not just for families who are waiting, but it's got to net to zero at some point. Otherwise, it becomes a mystery for no good reason.

Now, that takes us to what we are learning about this, Commissioner. This extensive reporting now, this, it's scattershot, it's piecemeal, but the guy is taking pictures in the basement. He doesn't like all the standing water.

They have a review in 2018. Then the Board sends a letter, says "We need $15 million in repairs." But it wasn't scary enough to leave, right, because all the Board members stayed in the building?

What do you make of the significance of the reporting that's come out about concerns about spalling, and cracking, et cetera, in this building?

SALZHAUER: I think in hindsight, obviously, these problems were catastrophic, that they were missed.

Going forward, I think that anyone, who sees this in their garage, is going to be pretty panicked, and for good reason, because we don't know exactly what caused this, what set of circumstances led to this building collapsing. It's going to turn out to be not just one thing, maybe this perfect storm of different contributing factors.

But obviously, in hindsight, this is a - they should have made more noise. They had this report. They had a report. It said very clearly, "Your building's in bad shape." It said very clearly, "You have significant deterioration of your - of your concrete, of your structure, of the slab." It didn't say "Run for your lives." And maybe it should have said "Run for your lives." But it didn't.

And again, the residents, maybe they didn't want to spend the money, maybe it took a long time to get their act together. There wasn't a sense of urgency. And we need to find out why that sense of urgency was not communicated.

CUOMO: So, you are hot on this. You're pushing the town's legal team to get any and all meeting minutes--

SALZHAUER: Oh!

CUOMO: --by the condo association, during the time when they were getting assessments. What are you looking for?

SALZHAUER: Yes, I mean, I didn't spend any time - I spent, I spent some time watching the survivors come to our community center, and seeing the looks on their faces. And the first thing they said to me was, "I knew it. I knew it. The

building was shaking like crazy, when they were building that building next door. I knew the water damage was there. I told them. Nobody listened to me."

They all had something along those lines to say. And that, for me, that's my wake-up call to say, "I need to do something about this," because I'm an outsider. I just got elected two years ago.

But the whole reason I got elected was to clean-up our town, was to clean-up Town Hall, was to bring sort of this small-town Mickey Mouse dysfunction paper-based system into the 21st Century.

And we had started doing that. We brought in a new Town Manager. We brought in a new - we have a new Assistant Town Manager. We have a new building official. The guy who was at the helm during this period was - is not there anymore, working for our town.

We were doing what we needed to do to clean things up, and to straighten things out. And then, this happened.

So, the good news is that the people that were involved in this that had their fingers in this are no longer with the town. So, I'm not concerned that people are going to be shredding documents, in the middle of the night, or trying to cover their tracks.

Everything is a public record. Everything is going to be in there. It's just a question of how we get to it, and how fast we can get to it.

CUOMO: What do you--

SALZHAUER: Again, we're a small town.

CUOMO: Well, I hear you. And look, at this point, especially, this is not about blame. I'm coming to you for perspective, not for accountability. Not yet anyway.

The idea of people, who had their finger in this, you got to help us understand what that means, in terms of what your point of speculation is.

We had a forensic expert on, who looks at collapses, and knows the area, who suggested, without any proof, with this particular building, and that matters that sometimes boards in this area would pick people because of their rates, and not their expertise, and that that's something that has to be looked at with who does the inspections, and who oversees that.

Does that resonate with you?

SALZHAUER: It does, but not in this case, because this guy's report was bad. They didn't hire someone to just tell them what they wanted to hear. They didn't hire someone, who whitewashed things.

If you read the report, by the engineer who did that report, Mr. Morabito, it is very strong. It's - look on page seven. He's not mincing words. He's telling them "Your building's in bad shape. You got to fix these things."

So, in this case, I don't think they hired someone, who was just going to--

CUOMO: But who is he supposed to tell that to?

SALZHAUER: --whitewash things.

[21:10:00]

CUOMO: That's my question. See, so the guy comes, he or she, he, in this case, they come, and they do an inspection, OK? The building's in bad shape. Does the accountability end with telling the board, or should there be some public reporting requirement?

SALZHAUER: Well, when you go to the doctor, and the doctor tells you, "You're overweight, and you're smoking, you need to quit," you say, "OK, thank you," and you walk outside, and you light up in the parking lot, right?

The doctor doesn't follow you around, and take the cigarette--

CUOMO: But it's just you.

SALZHAUER: --out of your mouth for the next 10 years.

CUOMO: It's not 110 units of you.

SALZHAUER: Right. Well, yes.

CUOMO: You see what I'm saying?

SALZHAUER: Yes, absolutely.

CUOMO: Should there be a different rule?

SALZHAUER: There needs to be - I do think we need to take a look at the whole process.

And more importantly, the condo board gets the report. The condo board then has to communicate that information to its condo residents. And it needs to make it clear enough, so that they are concerned.

What my concern is, is that it was diluted, that the Board got their report. It was scary to them. And they sought a second opinion. They asked for a second opinion.

And so, they called in our building official, to come on over and talk to them about it. And from the reading of the minutes, our building official said to them, "You're OK, you know? It's OK."

Now, again, I wasn't at the meeting. And I don't know someone who was at the meeting. All I know is what the minutes reflect. They may have heard what they wanted to hear. He may try - he may have been trying to not cause them to panic.

But I certainly think that there needed to be more urgency. I think we can see from the follow-up emails that he communicated to our Town Manager that he talked to the Board, and they're working with, you know, starting their stuff for 2008 - to 2021--

CUOMO: Right.

SALZHAUER: --to do their 40-year certification. But it wasn't - there was no sense of urgency communicated.

CUOMO: But here's what so--

SALZHAUER: So, where did that message get lost?

CUOMO: Well, sounds like, from your reckoning, him. And to be honest, I haven't really heard this before.

So, the lawyer for the condo board says the Board got the report. Her pushback, which is fairly compelling, is "Chris, you're trying to say that they knew the building was going to fall, and they stayed living there with their loved ones?"

OK, fair point. I don't think that people who had a reasonable belief that their building was in danger of collapse would stay. OK. I give you that.

But now you say that somebody, who worked for the municipality, doesn't work there anymore, wasn't there on your watch, noted and noted, said to them, "I looked at it. You're OK."

SALZHAUER: Well, he looked at the report. He didn't look at the building, because it's not his role. He doesn't have the authority. It's not his role to go look at the building. And maybe that's something that should change.

CUOMO: But you said the report was bad.

SALZHAUER: Maybe there needs to be two reports.

CUOMO: Why didn't he think it was bad?

SALZHAUER: Oh, right. You'd have to ask him. I'd love to ask him that. That's why I want to get the emails. I want all the emails. I want the Board minutes. I want - I want a full accounting of this.

CUOMO: Have you asked him to come in--

SALZHAUER: But you have to understand--

CUOMO: --and speak to you and the town attorneys?

SALZHAUER: I believe he has lawyered up quite quickly. So, I don't think that that's - that is going to happen. Certainly, there will be subpoenas issued. You know the state attorney. She's not wasting any time. There will be

subpoenas. They will hear all the evidence. And we will figure out - we'll get to the bottom of this. We're not going to stop.

But I'm not - I'm not interested in politics. I'm interested in getting answers for our residents, so that they - so this never happens again, and so that they know what happened.

But I do want to point at another item, is that when this was done, the building is certainly in bad shape. But there were other factors that also impacted this building.

There was a huge construction of a large tower, 20 storeys, right next door, called Eighty Seven Park, that was in the City of Miami Beach.

And when it was being built, the residents of this building, of Champlain South, complained, "Our building is shaking. I am seeing cracks from this construction. Hey, can you do something about it?"

And our town, unfortunately, it's not our territory. So, we had people, I think, saying to them, "What do you want us to do about it? It's not our town." Well, you know what? That's not a real - that's not a satisfactory answer to me.

The answer is you call up the City of Miami Beach, and say, "What's going on over there?" And the City of Miami Beach needs to be held accountable for what they allowed to go on over there, because each one of these things are going to have an impact.

CUOMO: Yes.

SALZHAUER: And there was another factor. There was - we did a - the Army Corps of Engineer did a Beach Renourishment Project in our town. And they trucked in thousands of tonnes of sand, right on 88th Street, next to this building, over the course of a year, hundreds of trucks, every day full of sand.

Usually this is done by barge, because of the weight of the sand. But they did it by - did it by truck. Did that, did the weight of all of those trucks coming in, day after day after day, did that contribute?

CUOMO: These--

SALZHAUER: So, what I'm saying is there's not going to be one person that wish to say--

CUOMO: Understood.

SALZHAUER: --"Oh gosh!" Yes.

CUOMO: Understood. But I'm saying look, you've pulled a lot of stuff together. And as you said, you're new to town. So obviously, I don't think this should be something--

SALZHAUER: I'm not - I'm not new to town.

CUOMO: Well, you said two years.

SALZHAUER: I'm not new to town.

CUOMO: Two years.

SALZHAUER: Yes, I'm new to the role.

CUOMO: Yes, I know. I hear you.

SALZHAUER: I'm new to being commissioner.

CUOMO: I'm saying.

SALZHAUER: Yes, yes.

CUOMO: But let's say you're new to the game, OK? You're new to the game, but you picked up a lot of thread pretty fast.

And that should give us hope that we can get answers, so that not only do the families, who are waiting with whatever the real number is, of how many people we're waiting to find out about, that the system can work in a way to make sure this is one story, and one story only that is ever told about this kind of disaster.

I appreciate you, Ms. Salzhauer, Commissioner, for being on, and giving us new insight tonight that I hadn't heard yet.

[21:15:00]

SALZHAUER: Yes. And listen, I want--

CUOMO: So, I appreciate the pieces to the puzzle.

SALZHAUER: --I want residents to know, I want everyone to know that there are people on the inside that are working to get to the bottom of this, not just the people on the outside that have questions, but even on the inside.

And I am. I am nagging. You can ask everyone in Town Hall. I'm nagging them multiple times a day, "Where are those documents? When can we post them? What's going on? I want answers." So I am - no one is more eager to get to the bottom of this than me.

CUOMO: Stay on it.

SALZHAUER: And I'm going to continue to do that.

CUOMO: We are happy to assist in the effort of accountability, and getting the information out. And you are welcome to use this platform to disseminate information that sheds insight, as you receive it.

SALZHAUER: Thank you. I appreciate that.

CUOMO: Be well. And thank you.

SALZHAUER: All right now, that's the - that was interesting, right? I mean, I didn't hear that this guy from the municipality had gone,

and met with them, and talked about the report, and whether it was bad or not bad. There are a lot of pieces here. And everyone matters, not scattershot, right, but in context.

So now, who knew this building? A structural engineer, who worked on the building, is going to join us. We first brought him in on night one. Now we know more. There are more documents out, the more different pieces of context, a little bit of a paper trail, things for him to build off of.

What does he think it's starting to shape up as? What does he need to know? Next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TEXT: CUOMO PRIME TIME.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[21:20:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TEXT: LET'S GET AFTER IT.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: Listen, here's a little window into reality here, OK? It's going to take time. It's going to be confusing. It's going to be complicated, finding out what happened with this building, in South Florida.

I can't even get straight with my own team, that I'm surprised to hear information they heard it before. This is one team. Think about all the different layers that are going to be a part of this investigation.

You got the state attorney. You're going to have the Feds involved. You're going to have the municipality. You got North Miami Beach here. You got Surfside right next to it. You got the Commissioner, who was just on. She wants a set of minutes. We may have the minutes from somebody else, we didn't even know.

This is going to be complicated. And that's why the state has to own it, and put together a team that is the clearinghouse for everything. If you do it scattershot, if you do it piecemeal, it's going to get screwed up.

People are going to get angry, there's going to be bad information and false suggestions. And we know it now, OK? And that's why I hope that the people who are in charge understand that there is one right way to do this. Now, when we turn our attention back to the actual tower, there is a

telling line, in that April letter to residents, of Surfside's Champlain Towers South. "A lot of this work could have been planned or done for in years gone by. But this is where we are now." What does that mean?

In the time between the 2018 report, and that letter, the cost ballooned nearly 70 percent. Why? Well, the letter blames rising construction costs. The costs for all sectors of construction in the area only rose about 12.9 percent. I mean, that's a lot to go up 12 percent, 13 percent.

But why did the problems get that much more expensive, in three years? Let's try to get some perspective on that. And how do we understand the language in these reports?

Somebody who writes them, somebody who studies them, somebody who does the investigating, structural engineer, familiar with the building that fell, Greg Batista, thank you for coming back.

GREG BATISTA, STRUCTURAL ENGINEER/WORKED ON COLLAPSED TOWER YEARS AGO, PRESIDENT, G. BATISTA ENGINEERING & CONSTRUCTION: Good evening.

CUOMO: First, help me with the money. This got much more expensive.

The condo lawyer told us, "Hey, you know, they could have had cash reserves. The board members, they kept voting it down. So, they needed to do a major assessment. It took them more time to raise the money."

Is that what they're talking about? Or was there some fixed cost or some shortage of suppliers to do this kind of work that ballooned expenses?

BATISTA: Well, being a contractor, and an engineer, I can - I can speak to this. Let's just assume just for a second, and this is a big assumption, that it's exactly the same scope of work.

Because if you have a price, on a set date, and then three years later, you have another price, maybe they added windows, maybe they added waterproofing--

CUOMO: Maybe it got worse.

BATISTA: --but - exactly, and that's what I'm getting at. So let's just make the assumption that everything's equal, but they're both the same scope of work.

It is a fact that the concrete repair, and the spalling, and the fact that the reinforcing steel, inside the concrete, worsens over time. And it's a geometrical increase, in the damage that happens to the concrete.

So, if you have, on year number one, you have a repair that's worth $100, year number two, you're going to have a - it's going to be worth $200, year number three, it's going to magnify. So, it's not a straight line. It's $1, year one, $2, year two, $3,

year three, it goes up geometrically. So, I'm not at all surprised. Even with inflation, and with the cost of construction going up, it's as no surprise at all, to me.

CUOMO: All right, two other issues. One, knowing what you know about this building, what is your reckoning of why the repairs weren't done when they were supposed to be? What was your experience working with them?

BATISTA: Well, this building is sort of an anomaly. I'm used to getting - doing 40-year recertifications, when the building department asks for it, which is it - which, in this case, would have been the year 2021.

These people had the foresight for whatever reason. Maybe they already saw the damages, that they - that they chose to do it three years before, ahead of time. So if - when they saw the damages, they should have - they should have immediately jumped on it, and done something about it.

[21:25:00]

But it's very complex, all the different pieces that go into play, as far as banks, and assessments, and the people getting upset, not willing to pay, and the financial status of those that are involved. It's a very complex situation.

CUOMO: One other thing. How are we supposed to understand this language, when we hear the language in these reports, "Significant structural deterioration," people saying things that sounds scary to a layperson?

But then we heard, I think, one of the engineers from your own shop, who had done some of this, saying, "Yes, this is what we're accustomed to seeing, when we do these kinds of reviews." You know what I mean?

Because I'm trying to figure out, why this board wasn't scared, out of their wits, by this report? Is that because the language doesn't mean, in the vocabulary of this kind of work, what we - what it sounds like, to the rest of us?

BATISTA: Look, when an engineer says that something needs to be done, and that this is dangerous, and they'd call - and it calls attention to that, they don't need to get into an alarmist language. At least I don't do that.

I've seen - I've seen many concrete damages, where I do use that same language. But if it comes to the point, where it is life-threatening, that is up to the engineer's judgment, to use that strong language.

But either way, if the engineer said that these is - that this is a dangerous situation, they should have taken him at his word at it. And I mean, and to me that's it. I've been in many situations where--

CUOMO: Right. BATISTA: --I've used that language, and the boards, for whatever reason, they want to kick the can down the road, "We can't afford it, et cetera, et cetera," that the engineer's hands are pretty much tied, as far as in being able to enforce any action, on the part of the boards.

CUOMO: Right. And just to be clear, that's not you, I'm talking about. You just have familiarity with the building. This wasn't you, who was dealing with this board.

But I'd tell you one thing, Greg. We know one thing now. It can't just be that the engineer in this situation has a duty to tell the board.

From now, there has to be a rule that you got to tell the municipality. If you see, something that is that much, of a concern, and the Board doesn't seem, to get it, it has to be reported. And I can't believe that's not the requirement now.

BATISTA: And I've done it before, Chris. I've been in situations, where I've deemed that the damages - and again, it goes back to what the Florida rules say that is the engineering judgment, that it is the engineer that is empowered by law to be able to say these things.

But, in this case - in certain cases, I've seen damages that are so extensive, that I have had to call the building department, and tell them, "Look, you guys need to do something about this," and in very strong language.

And ultimately, they are the ones that are empowered by law, and the building official, to come down on them, and use whatever resources they have at hand, to enforce it.

CUOMO: I'd still think there's got to be a more direct chain of accountability that an engineer should have to do it every time. Of course, it's on the building department. But we're going to learn about that process. And I guarantee you things are going to change.

Greg Batista, appreciate you.

BATISTA: Hopefully so.

CUOMO: I'll have you back again.

BATISTA: Thank you.

CUOMO: All right, so this tragedy comes, as the fate of infrastructure in this country is uncertain.

Now look, I know you guys have been jumping on me about this. And I kind of understand it. I'm not saying that if Biden passes his bill, this building doesn't fall down next time. Nobody's saying anything that stupid.

What I'm saying is that infrastructure matters. That's all, OK? It matters, because a lot of things are in the state of disrepair that this building was. I've watched bridges fall in this country, and dealt with the

aftermath of it. I've been there. I was there for I-35 in Minneapolis, in Minnesota, and watched that happen, and saw the lives taken.

It's real. It happens. Infrastructure matters, and not just because of this building, but this building is an example of what can happen.

Biden is pushing his deal in Wisconsin today. So, does this add urgency? Or is the really big problem, not the reality of what we all know, but the politics of getting it done?

Let's bring in a progressive Democrat in the House. The Democrat's going to make it easier or harder? Next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TEXT: CUOMO PRIME TIME.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[21:30:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TEXT: LET'S GET AFTER IT.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: A bipartisan group of senators got together, and they forged an agreement, to move forward on the key priorities, of my American Jobs Plan.

This is a generational investment - a generational investment to modernize our infrastructure, creating millions of good-paying jobs.

I'm going to be out there making the case for the American people until this job is done, until we bring this bipartisan deal home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: He's out there talking to people, good. But is his real problem his own people in Congress? Let's discuss. That's President Biden. But Capitol Hill is where this is going to live or die.

Progressive Democrats are not happy. They think that the bill is too small that was celebrated as a function of a deal. And they want this second piece, tranche, program, policy, any word you want, chunk of money, for different things that you will hear criticized as "Not traditional infrastructure." And they want them to be done at the same time.

There are Democrats in the Senate who do not want that. So what happens?

Congresswoman Katie Porter is here.

Good to have you on PRIME TIME. Hope the family as well.

REP. KATIE PORTER (D-CA): Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

CUOMO: Porter, are you the problem?

PORTER: Absolutely not.

Look, Democrats are delivering this infrastructure package, along with President Biden. And we're so glad that Republicans are stepping up, and recognizing that this kind of investment, in infrastructure, is what we need, to have a strong and stable globally competitive economy.

But to say that we're going to support infrastructure is also to say that we're going to support the workers, who are going to be building those bridges, working on those transit jobs, engaging in those climate projects.

And that means that we also need to be doing things, like investing in childcare, passing paid family leave. These are both parts of the "Build Back Better" plan. And Democrats are simply saying, "We're with you President Biden. We're going to do both of these things, absolutely with you."

And we hope Republicans will join in the second part of the plan that both of the aspects of this can be bipartisan.

CUOMO: What if you can't get the full number of Democrats, in the Senate, with the reconciliation part, which, you know, I agree with your analysis about the need to help workers.

[21:35:00]

I'm just saying let's call it non-traditional infrastructure. I know that that's a little objectionable, to progressives. But forgive me on it, at least for now, because there are people who don't agree.

But let's say they don't want to do it in the Senate. Then it comes back to you guys. And it is, will you pass the part that they agree on that Biden is celebrating, and leave the other part alone?

PORTER: We are - there's absolutely a necessity that we don't leave any Americans behind in this economic recovery.

And so, that means we have to be thinking, not just about jobs, on climate resilience, but also about caregiving jobs. It means we have to not just be investing in airports, but we have to be investing in things, like childcare.

CUOMO: But isn't something better than nothing? And would you kill the first bill, if you can't get the second one? PORTER: This is a false choice. We, the Democrats, have control of the House. We have 50 votes in the Senate. And this is ultimately, Chris, up to the American people.

And the American people want us to create good high-paying jobs. They also want us to support them, in being able to train, and travel to, and take care of their family, and put away enough money to take care of themselves.

CUOMO: But you have sticker shock with some of your Democrats in the Senate, as you know.

PORTER: Well, it's really important to talk through what we're going to be investing in, and what the cost is of doing nothing.

It's also important to understand President Biden has put very real proposals, on the table, to help fund his "Build Back Better" agenda, including IRS tax enforcement, making sure that corporations and the ultra-wealthy are paying their fair share.

And what we've seen Chris, and I see this in my own district, talking to Republicans, and Independents, and Democrats, is that Americans understand these investments, cost money, but they will ultimately pay dividends, and they back not only the President's proposals, to do these things, but the President's proposals to pay for these things.

CUOMO: Congresswoman Katie Porter, I appreciate you making the case, as always.

PORTER: Thank you.

CUOMO: All right, another big topic. Criminal justice, it's becoming politicized. It shouldn't. The numbers are the numbers. Is all crime going up? No. Are shootings going up? Yes.

We have to keep looking at how the system works, and how it doesn't. And this is how it doesn't, OK? A 76-year-old grandmother, who served more than a decade, behind bars, for drug crimes, nobody's saying that she never did anything wrong with her life, OK?

She was in jail for a long time. She comes out. She's working in a program to help. She doesn't answer the phone because she's in the program. And she gets ordered back to prison, after she was granted home confinement. Why, for missing one damn phone call?

She's going to hear - you're going to hear from her son, and the attorney, to make the case for her release, next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TEXT: CUOMO PRIME TIME.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[21:40:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TEXT: LET'S GET AFTER IT.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: A grandmother, literally, older than 75, she's 76-years-old, is behind bars tonight because she didn't answer the phone. I mean look, that is the bottom line, all right?

Gwen Levi - or Levi is 76. Levi served 16 years for dealing heroin. I'm not saying that she's Mother Teresa, OK? You can do wrong things in life, pay your debt, and there should still be fairness under law.

Now last June, as COVID surged, she and 4,500 other federal prisoners were released to home confinement. There are conditions, OK? One of the conditions was that you do something productive.

She attended a computer class in Baltimore. When she went to the class, it triggered her ankle monitor. Happens. She didn't answer the calls to her phone, for a few hours. A federal report listed the 76- year-old as having attempted an escape.

Gwen, 76-year-old, Levi is now back behind bars. Her son Craig, and attorney Sapna Mirchandani, and you can tell me how to say the name right, join me now.

First of all, help me, Counselor. I want to get names right. Sapna, how do I say your last name?

SAPNA MIRCHANDANI, ATTORNEY FOR GWENDOLYN LEVI, ASSISTANT FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER: Mirchandani.

CUOMO: Mirchandani? Couldn't have told me that before the segment? No, I appreciate it.

And I want to give one little moment of levity because I know that Craig, this is killing you. And it should be. This is embarrassing to us. Monitoring matters.

And let's be very clear. Craig, why didn't your grandmother answer the phone?

CRAIG LEVI, SON OF GWENDOLYN LEVI: She was only continuing the class.

CUOMO: Mother? Why didn't your mother answer the phone, Craig?

LEVI: She did - she was in the class, and she didn't want to disturb start of the class. And she was just going to call them.

CUOMO: Did she know who was calling her?

LEVI: No, she didn't know at the time. She just heard the phone ring, and just turned to ring it down, and continued on with her lesson.

CUOMO: So?

LEVI: When she got back home is when she found out what was going on.

CUOMO: This is the class that your mother was in? I got confused.

LEVI: Yes.

CUOMO: She is a grandmother, and she's got grandkids, but she is your mother.

LEVI: Yes.

CUOMO: And she did her time for the crime that she did. She's out, trying to do something. And that's why she didn't answer it.

Now, Sapna, what am I missing that triggers this? Is it just absolute liability, if you don't answer the phone, you've escaped?

MIRCHANDANI: I guess that's what - that's what I've learned, over the past couple of weeks. I was shocked, when she told me that she was being sent back for this. And I figured it was a misunderstanding.

And I got on the phone with her case manager, at the halfway house, and then later, multiple BOP, Bureau of Prisons, officials. And what I was told is that she did not have permission to be at that class, first of all, and that she didn't answer her phone, for more than four hours.

And in answer to the first one, she believed she had permission, to be at class. She, for the past year, she has religiously sent, every two weeks, a list of where she's going to be, medical appointments, anything that she does, it has to be pre-approved. She does not leave her house unless she's got an emergency.

CUOMO: Was the class listed on her intended appointments?

MIRCHANDANI: Yes, it was.

CUOMO: All right. That's a key fact. Also, something else circumstantial, then Craig, I'm coming back to you.

The idea of her status, she wasn't on probation, right?

MIRCHANDANI: No.

[21:45:00]

CUOMO: She wasn't being furloughed. She was serving the rest of the sentence at home, because of COVID. Does that change the standard?

MIRCHANDANI: I don't think it should.

The home - the home confinement standard is not easy to get in the first place. So, when she was chosen, for home confinement, last year, she was one of a select few that was handpicked, again by the Trump Administration. So, this was under Bill Barr's leadership, that she was determined

because she's such a low-level offender, non-violent, elderly, ill, and in this - the portion of the, you know, she's at an incredibly low risk of recidivism, based on all these factors that she and other people like her were could be safely put into the community, and they were encouraged to build their lives again. They were not told that they could be sent back.

The understanding at the time was that they would be on home confinement until the end. That's what the prosecutor's office has been arguing, and in court actually that home confinement is the end of the story, and that she shouldn't get a sentence reduction, which is what we're seeking for her.

CUOMO: So, the prosecutors are trying to nail her on this, and say "No reduction in sentence. She should go back to prison, and serve the whole thing, because she didn't answer the phone for four hours?"

MIRCHANDANI: They haven't commented on this escape thing, which just happened within the past couple of weeks.

But they have opposed her receiving compassionate-released, even though she's elderly, served a majority of her sentence, has a perfect, you know, almost perfect disciplinary record, and has volunteered.

She helped mentor younger inmates. She helped older inmates. She got a ramp installed in the jail, so that older people could participate. I mean she's - you said she's not Mother Teresa. She's about as close to Mother Teresa as you can get.

CUOMO: I'm not - I'm not trying to criticize her or judge her in any way.

MIRCHANDANI: Right.

CUOMO: I'm just saying people hear that you committed a crime, and like half their heart closes. I'm just trying to keep people open- minded.

MIRCHANDANI: Well, yes.

CUOMO: But Craig, let me end--

MIRCHANDANI: And she did plead - she did plead guilty, and since then, has become a different person. And that does factor into this.

CUOMO: It happens.

MIRCHANDANI: It should factor into this.

CUOMO: It happens all the time. Craig, what do you want people to know about your mom?

LEVI: Oh, man, she's a compassionate woman, a loving woman, a caring woman, family-orientated. I can go on and on, sir. But right now, I'm just emotionally and I'm just trying to hold it together. It's just very hard on the family.

CUOMO: I hear you. It's got to be tough when you have her back, after all that time, and then she's at risk of being gone again. We will keep monitoring the situation.

LEVI: And--

CUOMO: We'll keep monitoring the situation

LEVI: Thank you, sir.

CUOMO: And I appreciate you, talking to us about your mom, and bringing this to light.

Counselor, thank you very much. Sapna Mirchandani, thank you very much.

All right, the Olympics.

We are going to stay on it. Come on! You know that doesn't make any sense. You can be tough on crime. That's not tough on crime.

The Olympics are less than a month away. You're about to meet someone, who just qualified to be on Team USA. Why is everybody talking about "Track sensation" Gabby Thomas? Because she's a sensation! Only one woman in history has clocked 200 meters faster than her. Remember Flo- Jo?

This young lady is going to Tokyo, and she's tonight's Ameri-CAN. Next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TEXT: CUOMO PRIME TIME.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[21:50:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TEXT: LET'S GET AFTER IT.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: Gabby Thomas, 24-years-old, tonight's Ameri-CAN, you know why? I could end the analysis at this. She graduated from Harvard. And all she wants to do is find ways to give back.

She is now studying epidemiology, which is disease science, we're learning a little bit about that the hard way, right, at the University of Texas. And she wants to get involved in healthcare management, and taking on racial disparities, in the healthcare system, which is a big need. She is doing the right thing with a huge degree. That would be enough.

But guess what else? She's one of the fastest women on the planet, and is a rising track-star on Team USA. She is going to Japan.

Congratulations, my friend.

GABBY THOMAS, QUALIFIED FOR U.S. OLYMPIC TRACK AND FIELD TEAM, WON 200 METER FINALS AT OLYMPIC TRIALS: Thank you. Thank you so much.

CUOMO: So, you're very smart. But has this sunk into your brain and your heart yet that you won the 200, in the trials, and that you are going to be with your childhood idol, Allyson Felix, on the same team, and that only Flo-Jo has posted a better time than you did in the 200?

THOMAS: It has not sunk in yet. I think it will finally hit me, when I arrive in Tokyo, and I'm actually in the gear, and running on the track.

As for right now, it all still feels like one big dream. It's unreal that I get to be on the same team as Allyson Felix, and then I even ran a time that fast.

CUOMO: Have you ever run that fast in training?

THOMAS: Oh, you got to ask my coach! But I don't think so. I think that that time was just a culmination of the mental preparation, from that entire week.

I was in Oregon for two weeks, just in my hotel room, preparing and getting myself, like pumped up, and ready, and laser-focused. So, I think I just pulled it out at the time when I needed it most.

CUOMO: You are so fast you don't even know how fast you are. That's how fast you are.

So, what does this mean for you that you're going to represent the country? And how does that hit your head and your heart?

THOMAS: Well, for me, it means everything, because it's been such a long journey for me, like many of the athletes there. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of hours, days, weeks, months, of mental and physical preparation, just for that one moment.

So, when it all comes together for that - those 21 seconds, and for me to make the team, the one thing that I've been training for, for so long, it's the most magical feeling ever. There's really no other way to describe it other than, just it felt like magic.

CUOMO: Third fastest time in history! That would be more than anybody could ever dream of. And that's before getting to go to the Olympics. Flo-Jo holds the other two. That's why I said there's only one woman because that two is accurate.

Now, do you think, given what you just did, are you now starting to get to the point, where you are believing "I can do this. I can come out of there with medal around my neck. It may even be gold!" [21:55:00]

THOMAS: Absolutely. So, I went into that meet not knowing what to really expect. I wanted to make the team. And that was my goal. And that was kind of what I was training for all year, including 2020, because it was a COVID year, just get on this Olympic team.

During the rounds, I kept running faster. I ran some 22, which was really, really good for me and a personal best. And so, as I kept running the rounds, I kept getting more and more confident.

And I didn't expect to run quite that fast. But now that I did, and I know what I'm capable of, mentally and physically, I'm ready to go in to Tokyo, and run for the gold, absolutely.

CUOMO: I'll tell you why I made you the Ameri-CAN. Because you're fast as hell, and you're going to be on the Olympic team, and that's very cool.

But I also think that especially, as a parent, and somebody who's watching the next generation, you check in so many boxes, you know? You went to Harvard, for God's sake. That's already a dream for 99.9 percent of our population.

You want to study epidemiology. You want to help give back. You want to work with people. You're young. You're open-minded. And you're just talented as hell. And you are doing the work. Track is all work. Speed is made. Talent is given.

And I just want to say thank you, as an American. Thank you for representing the best of us. And you better run your ass off, in Tokyo, and do even bigger and better things. And we will be watching Gabby Thomas.

THOMAS: Thank you so much. That means a lot.

CUOMO: Congratulations. Thank you for being the best of us.

THOMAS: Thank you.

CUOMO: We'll be right back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TEXT: CUOMO PRIME TIME.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TEXT: LET'S GET AFTER IT.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CUOMO: We go after answers in Florida, not because it's a Gotcha game. Because that's what you would want, if it was your family. And there has to be a responsibility to one another. That's what that story is about.

That building come down, makes no sense. It never happens here. It's not going to be simple. Getting the answer, if it's not handled right, and they don't get a commission, and they don't have discipline, and they don't bring in all the assets, and marshal it, it's going to be ugly. And that isn't right.

So, let's be together. That's what being an Ameri-CAN is all about. We can be better, and we will be better, if we are together.

Thank you for the opportunity. The big show, "DON LEMON TONIGHT" with its star, D. Lemon right now.