A close political ally of Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey pleaded guilty on Thursday to a federal charge of soliciting a bribe for pressuring United Airlines to fly a money-losing route convenient to his family’s weekend home.
Prosecutors have been examining whether David Samson, a Christie appointee who was chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from 2011 to 2014, threatened to withhold funding and approvals sought by United unless the airline agreed to bring back the twice-weekly route to South Carolina that became known as “the chairman’s flight.”
Samson’s guilty plea could reverberate through the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, where Christie has taken on a prominent role. Samson was a member of Christie’s inner circle and chaired the governor’s transition team in 2009. Now, Christie is Trump’s transition chief and is a potential Trump pick for a cabinet position or even vice president. Trump is expected to announce his choice of running mate on Friday.
Samson’s lawyer, Michael Chertoff, declined to say whether Samson would cooperate and declined to discuss the case. When approached by a reporter in a courthouse elevator his only response was: “The next you’re going to hear from us will be at sentencing.”
Samson faces as many as two years in prison. His sentencing has been scheduled for Oct. 20.
The scandal over the South Carolina route has also ensnared Jeff Smisek, the chief executive officer of United Continental Holdings Inc., and two other company executives, who resigned last September after an internal investigation.
Three other former Christie allies have been charged for their suspected roles in creating traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to punish a local Democratic mayor who didn’t back the governor’s re-election. The investigation into the Port Authority’s participation in that incident, known as “Bridgegate,” led prosecutors to evidence that Samson had pressured United into scheduling the flight.
Samson, a Republican, was attorney general under Governor Jim McGreevey, a Democrat. He became linked with Christie in 2003, when both men emerged on a hit list by a chapter of the Latin Kings street gang in Newark.
As governor, Christie conferred with Samson on a wide range of legal, political and transportation issues, and Samson’s law firm reaped a wide assortment of lucrative legal and consulting contracts from state agencies and authorities.
Samson, 76, had pressed United to restart the twice-weekly flights between Newark Liberty International Airport and Columbia Metropolitan Airport in South Carolina at a 2011 dinner at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan and then escalated his efforts for months via e-mail, people familiar with the matter said. At the time, United was seeking millions of dollars in investments from the authority, which runs the Newark airport.
Bloomberg News, in April 2015, reported details of the negotiations for the flight. After the airline balked at adding the route, Samson wrote an e-mail to a United lobbyist, saying that he’d pulled one of United’s requests from the Port Authority agenda, people familiar with the negotiations said. In September 2012, United began the flight.
Two weeks later, the Port Authority approved a study to extend the PATH rail to the Newark airport. Several days after Samson stepped down as chairman in March 2014, the flight ended.
To read about the dinner proposal that ensnared United in the New Jersey corruption investigation, click here.
Despite emails by Christie aides suggesting that Samson was “helping us retaliate” against New York officials who reopened the lanes, a report commissioned by Christie and compiled by the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP said it found no evidence that Samson took part in the scheme. The report didn’t address the issue of the United flight.
Two of those allies, Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff in Christie’s office, and Bill Baroni, a former Port Authority deputy executive director, face trial in September. David Wildstein, a former Port Authority executive, pleaded guilty to his role in the plot and is cooperating with prosecutors.
(Updates with details of investigation beginning in fourth paragraph.)
–With assistance from Rebecca Spalding
To contact the reporters on this story: David Voreacos in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, at email@example.com, David Kocieniewski in Newark, New Jersey at firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jeffrey D Grocott at email@example.com, David S. Joachim, Joe Schneider
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