NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — The former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey conspired with a United Airlines lobbyist to use his post to get the airline to run direct flights to South Carolina so that he could more easily visit his vacation home, officials said Thursday.
David Samson, a political mentor to Republican Gov. Chris Christie, pleaded guilty to a corruption charge that he wrongfully used his Port Authority of New York and New Jersey post, CBS2’s Christine Sloan reported. The ex-lobbyist, Jamie Fox, was then charged with conspiracy to commit bribery, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said.
“That for me is what makes this case so significant and so sad as Mr. Samson admitted and we allege against Mr. Fox. They both should have known better,” Fishman said.
The company entered into a “non-prosecution agreement” and will pay a $2.25 million fine for the role its officials played in the scheme.
United issued the following statement on Thursday afternoon: “As we move forward, continuing to earn and keep the trust of our employees, customers, shareholders, and the communities we serve around the world remains critical to our success,” said Oscar Munoz, President and Chief Executive Officer of United.
“We will continue to act with the utmost integrity in everything we do, ensuring that we are always conducting business ethically and with the best interests of all of our stakeholders in mind.”
Under the agreement, United accepted responsibility for certain conduct related to the establishment of the flight between Newark and Columbia. Also, United agreed to continue to enhance its compliance, anti-bribery and anti-corruption program policies and procedures as appropriate and to make annual reports of its compliance efforts. United is committed to full compliance with this agreement.
The government praised United for its “extensive, thorough, timely and voluntary cooperation” as well as its “early and extensive remedial efforts.” The USAO also acknowledged that United improved its Ethics and Compliance Office and enhanced its policies.
Former United CEO Jeff Smisek and two government relations executives left the airline last September after United conducted its own investigation. None of them have been charged with any criminal wrongdoing.
Samson admitted that he conspired with Fox to pressure United to reinstate the “chairman’s flight” to Columbia, not far from his vacation home in Aiken, by removing from a board agenda discussion of a hangar that United wanted at Newark Liberty International Airport.
Samson said he in a statement that he takes “full responsibility,” and that he threatened to pull “a United wide-body hangar lease at Newark Airport” from the Port Authority’s agenda if the airline didn’t give him his flight.
Prosecutors will recommend that Samson get a sentence of probation to 24 months behind bars under an agreement. Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 20. His attorney, Michael Chertoff, said he wouldn’t have any comment until then. Samson left the courthouse after posting $100,000 bond and surrendering his passport.
After leaving his job with United, Fox was appointed the state’s transportation commissioner by Christie. Fox, a Democrat, stepped down in October 2015. His attorney wasn’t immediately available to comment.
Samson was Port Authority chairman during the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal that led to criminal charges against three other Christie allies, including the governor’s deputy chief of staff.
Christie appointed Samson, a former state attorney general, to the Port Authority chairman’s post in 2011 after he led the governor’s transition team in 2009.
Samson wasn’t charged in the bridge investigation. But an email from a Port Authority official to a Christie aide, both of whom were later charged, described Samson “helping to retaliate” after Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye ordered the lanes reopened.
United ended the half-filled flights three days after Samson resigned his Port Authority post in March 2014, a day after a law firm’s taxpayer-funded report cleared Christie of wrongdoing and laid much of the blame for the lane closures on the Christie aide. Samson was among several key figures in the drama who weren’t interviewed for the report.
The bridge investigation, combined with an earlier audit that called the Port Authority “challenged and dysfunctional,” trained a spotlight on the powerful agency and eventually led to questions about Samson’s interactions with United Airlines.
The agency released a statement Thursday saying, “The Port Authority has and will continue to be fully cooperative in all matters under investigation. Following today’s plea, we will continue to move forward with the reforms that have been adopted and embraced by all members of the Port Authority and its leadership.”
When Samson was chairman, United resumed direct flights to the South Carolina airport near his vacation home. Around the same time, Chicago-based United was pressing for concessions from the agency, including a new hangar at the Newark airport, rent reductions and a commuter rail-line extension that would connect the airport directly to lower Manhattan.
The Port Authority also wanted to increase flights to Atlantic City, while New Jersey struggled to revitalize the struggling seaside gambling resort. United began those flights between Houston and Chicago in April 2014, but they were typically half full and United canceled the service that December.
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