Air Travel Greased Wheels |for Ex-Port Authority Chair

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — One of two former high-level government appointees of Gov. Chris Christie enmeshed in a bribery scandal pleaded guilty Thursday to accepting airline tickets from a lobbyist.
     Before stepping down in March 2014 amid scrutiny over the Bridgegate scandal, David Samson spent three years as the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
     Copping to a felony count of bribery today, Samson admitted in court that he had used United’s plans for a larger hangar at Newark Liberty International Airport as leverage for his travel convenience.
     Samson had a vacation home just a few dozen miles from the airport in Columbia, S.C., and United reinstated a little-used flight path from Newark to Columbia Metropolitan Airport after Port Authority approved the hangar plan in 2011.
     The flights were even scheduled to fit around Samson’s personal itinerary, departing Thursday nights and returning early Monday mornings.
     Samson reportedly used the flight — which he and a lobbyist often joked about “Chairman’s Flight” and “Samson Air” — more than two dozen times.
     Prosecutors say the quid pro quo began at a dinner at a New York City restaurant, when Samson met with United lobbyist Jamie Fox and the two discussed the Newark-Columbia flight. United had ceased the flight plan because it was unprofitable.
     In an email to an United executive after the dinner, Fox wrote that they “need to come up with some spin on the South Carolina flight Samson asked about … he asked in jest — I think — that he hoped that I had good news on the flight,” according to court documents.
     Fox and Samson emailed each other often and eventually hashed out a plan to get United’s hangar plan back on the Port Authority’s agenda in exchange for the reinstatement of the Newark-Columbia flight plan. After it was approved, Fox emailed Samson to say that “having item off/on this week worked” in getting United’s attention, court documents state.
     Fox, who also served as New Jersey Transportation Commissioner from 2014 until 2015, has been under investigation by federal officials since 2015 for allegations of corruption involving Atlantic City.
     Several United executives, including CEO Jeff Smisek, have left the company as a result of the Newark-Columbia flight plan. United stopped the “Chairman’s flight” shortly after Samson resigned from the Port Authority.
     United agreed to pay $2.25 million penalty and to revamp its compliance programs to more easily detect bribery. United will not face any charges if it abides by the terms of its new compliance program.
     “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,” United CEO Oscar Munoz said in a statement.
     U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman called it “a betrayal of our trust and what we have the right to expect from those in public life.”
     “It makes the job of every honest public employee just that much harder,” Fishman added in a statement.
     The Port Authority said it “has and will continue to fully cooperate in all matters under investigation and 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.”
     Samson served as attorney general for New Jersey from 2002 until 2003, and has close ties to Christie, reportedly acting as one of his advisors during Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial race and in 2011 being appointed to head up the Port Authority.
     He also started his own law firm, Wolff & Samson, which was known for its close ties to New Jersey government officials — mainly due to Samson’s own contacts throughout the years.
     The firm today is known as Chiesa, Shahinian & Giantomasi.
     Federal authorities began looking into Samson’s relationships with United and other travel carriers in 2015, when they reportedly subpoenaed his travel records.
     For roughly the past two years Samson also has been investigated for potential involvement in the so-called Bridgegate scandal, which already has implicated several Christie staffers and Port Authority officials.
     The Bridgegate scandal stems from a five-day shutdown of several lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge that snarled traffic for hours. Bridget Anne Kelly and William Baroni Jr. were charged with conspiracy and fraud for their alleged roles in shutting down the lanes as political payback to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who had declined to endorse Gov. Chris Christie in his re-election bid for governor.
     Samson resigned from his post at Port Authority after prosecutors began investigating him for his alleged role in Bridgegate, and the focus on him intensified after a leaked email was brought to light.
     In the email, Port Authority official David Wildstein wrote that Samson was “helping us retaliate” against agency executive director Patrick Foye, who had helped reopen lanes on the George Washington Bridge.
     Wildstein pleaded guilty in 2015 to conspiracy for his role in Bridgegate, stating that he, Kelly and Baroni used the agency to cause traffic problems on the bridge and later concocted a cover story involving traffic studies to hide the political retaliation.
     Two others — former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director William Baroni and Christie Chief of Staff Bridge Anne Kelly — now face trial for their alleged roles in the scandal.
     Samson is currently scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 20. He faces as much as 10 years behind bars and a $250,000 fine.
     Fox was separately charged for his role in facilitating the quid pro quo. His court date is not yet scheduled.

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