Christie pal guilty, squeezed airline for route to home

Associated Press

Newark, N.J. — The former chairman of the agency that controls New York City-area airports pleaded guilty Thursday to using his post to get United Airlines to run direct flights to South Carolina so that he could more easily visit his vacation home.

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.

Former United CEO Jeff Smisek and two government relations executives left the airline last September after United conducted its own investigation. None of them has been charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

Samson admitted that he used the flight from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina, 27 times between October 2011 and January 2014.

He admitted that he pressured United to reinstate the flight to Columbia, not far from his vacation home in Aiken, by removing a hangar that United wanted at Newark Liberty International Airport from a board agenda.

Samson will 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.

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, the Port Authority’s inspector general and the FBI have scheduled a news conference for Thursday afternoon.

United ended the half-filled flights three days after Samson resigned his Port Authority post in March 2014 in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal that led to criminal charges against three other Christie allies.

Samson wasn’t charged in the bridge investigation, in which Christie allies were accused of causing traffic problems to exact revenge against a politician. 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.

Samson, a former state attorney general, led the governor’s transition team in 2009, and Christie appointed him to the Port Authority chairman’s post in 2011.

He resigned from the Port Authority 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 wasn’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.

When Samson was chairman, United resumed direct flights to the South Carolina airport. Around the same time, Chicago-based United was pressing for concessions from the agency, including the new hangar at Newark, 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 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.