By Briana Vannozzi
“David Samson, the former chairman of the Port Authority, admitted in federal court that he knowingly and intentionally used his position as the chairman of the Port Authority to pressure United Airlines to provide that nonstop service from Newark to Columbia so that he could more conveniently fly to his home in Akon, South Carolina,” said U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.
Samson admitted the so-called “chairman’s flight” was his idea. It was a money-losing mostly empty route. Today we learned he took it 27 times during his tenure. It was canceled just three days after his resignation amid the Bridgegate investigation. He did it by threatening to withhold and stall project approvals for the airline.
“Mr. Samson did not act alone. During his guilty plea Mr. Samson acknowledged that United’s own lobbyist in New Jersey was effectively the go-between who helped to orchestrate the strategy and deliver the message that Samson would take action against United if the airline didn’t play ball,” Fishman said.
Fishman dropping a bombshell today, announcing former Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox will also be criminally charged with one count of conspiracy. Fox was not only a paid lobbyist and consultant for United, but Samson’s good friend. He joined him for a dinner with other United reps in 2011 to push for the Newark-Carolina route. United admitted the flight wasn’t profitable and wouldn’t give the green light.
“As the chairman, Mr. Samson exercised power over the agenda of the Port Authority’s board of commissioners and he controlled whether an item was on or off the agenda for a particular meeting. As he admitted just around the time United balked his request, the board was poised to vote on an agreement relating to of United’s construction of a wide-bodied maintenance hanger at Newark Airport,” Fishman said.
Samson shut it down.
“They both should have known better. They both did know better,” said Fishman.
United will not be prosecuted in the case. Instead the airline will pay a fine of $2.25 million and, unlike Samson, will cooperate with the investigation.
“In the end it doesn’t matter if the corruption scheme is national or local in scope. There is no acceptable level of public corruption. The violation of trust is the same and the American public won’t stand for it,” said Special Agent in Charge Tim Gallagher.
Immediately following the hearing, the PA issued a statement expressing full cooperation in investigations moving forward. The U.S. attorney’s office isn’t taking a position on Samson’s sentence recommendation, but he could face up to two years in prison. The sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 20.
NJTV News Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron spoke with Anchor Mary Alice Williams about what happened today:
Williams: What surprised you the most, Michael, about the narrative that was rolled out today?
Aron: Well, first of all, it was surprising to see David Samson in court surrounded by Michael Chertoff, Justin Walder and Angelo Genova.
Williams: A powerhouse.
Aron: A powerhouse trio of lawyers saying, “Yes your honor” 40 or 50 times as the judge read out various sections of the narrative. At one point, Chertoff had to pat him on the back because it looked like he was losing his composure. This is such a lion of the legal establishment. It was such a humbling day for him. And it turns out that he initiated this whole notion of reinstating this money-losing route from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina and that he also referred to it as the chairman’s flight. He may not have named it that, but that he used that phrase for it.
Williams: And the judge asked him that today. Did you call it the chairman’s flight and he said, “Yes your honor.”
Aron: He said, “Yes your honor a good 40 or 50 times.
Williams: Did former Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox’s involvement surprise you at all?
Aron: Well yes. But we knew that Jamie Fox was at the dinner where this flight first came up. We knew that from reporting well over a year ago. But the idea that he was part of a criminal conspiracy was new to us today. The idea that he’s being charged with a crime was new to us today. Jamie Fox had a stellar career in public service — former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, transportation commissioner, former chief of staff to a governor, chief of staff to a U.S. senator. And it’s worth noting that Senate President Steve Sweeney put out a statement this afternoon vouching for Fox’s character and reminding everyone that he’s innocent until proven guilty.
Williams: Will today’s court proceedings have any effect at all on Chris Christie’s political ambitions going forward?
Aron: Not directly. And maybe not at all. And it’s interesting to speculate on why it should happen at Christie’s moment in the veepstakes. Some people might assume that Paul Fishman wanted to bring it up and rain on Christie’s parade.
Williams: On the very day that he might have been chosen as…
Aron: Paul Fishman doesn’t operate that way. He’s not a political prosecutor. It would be totally inappropriate and he is by the book. So you have to wonder whether David Samson’s guilty plea was also timed maybe to help Christie. That it was an act of loyalty. Get this out of the way. Get my non-cooperation known to everybody so that if this guy Christie does get selected, that he’s not compromised by what’s Samson going to say hanging over his head.
Williams: So you’re erring on the side of being charitable here?
Aron: I guess so. I have charitable feelings about David Samson. He’s the first attorney general we’ve seen in a criminal courtroom that I can think of in the 20th or 21st century so it’s a sad day as Fishman kept saying. It’s a sad day in New Jersey.
Williams: Michael Aron, thanks for being here.