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Sources: United Lobbyist, Now Christie Cabinet Member, Tried to Stop Bridgegate Probe

Matt Katz NJPR/WNYC | September 28, 2015

Jamie Fox is a Democrat with Republican friends, a cabinet member in the Christie Administration who worked for three out of the last four Democratic governors, an operative who has survived in New Jersey politics through relationships, smarts and a reputation for toughness.

Now, he is linked to the two most notorious scandals to hit Gov. Chris Christie: Bridgegate and the Chairman's Flight. 

Fox tried to influence Democrats in the Legislature to back off from its investigation of the mysterious lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in the fall of 2013, according to three sources from the Legislature and Port Authority close to the investigation. And he expressed anger that the investigation persisted even after Port Authority deputy executive director, Bill Baroni, testified to the Assembly Transportation Committee that the lane closures were part of a traffic study. Baroni's testimony was discredited shortly afterward when the "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email was released.

It was unclear on whose behalf Fox did this lobbying, although he dined regularly with his friend, David Samson, the former Port Authority chairman and Christie confidante who is now ensnared in the so-called Chairman's Flight scandal. Federal investigators are looking into whether Samson asked United Airlines to establish a flight route from the Port Authority-owned Newark Liberty Airport to Columbia, S.C., where Samson has a weekend home, in a deal that would have lowered United's costs.

Fox was a lobbyist for United dealing with a range of Port Authority issues when that deal was allegedly made. His communications with Samson have been subpoenaed by federal officials. 

Fox's attorney, Robert J. Fettweis, described any discussions that Fox may have had with Democrats over Bridgegate as friendly advice. "Over many years, he has befriended many people from both parties and he has sought and given advice in the normal course of work," Fettweis said in a statement to WNYC. "The issue was the main topic of conversation for hundreds of people in the New Jersey political universe at the time and Jamie's conversations were always appropriate and a part of the regular art of politics and government."

Less than a year after these conversations, Christie shocked Trenton by naming this long-time Democrat as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, one of the most important cabinet positions in the administration. Fox was charged with finding revenue for the state's nearly bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for road and bridge repairs, but that has so far not happened. He had warned the fund would go bankrupt this year but a spokesman now says it has enough money until next year.

Fox was transportation commissioner once before, under former Gov. Jim McGreevey. He later served as chief of staff when McGreevey resigned office amid scandal. Fox then moved to the Port Authority, where as deputy executive director he controversially collected a $206,000 salary and $30,000 housing allowance, earning him the "Golden Parachute Award" from the Star-Ledger. Earlier this year, Fox said he opposes the "so-called reforms" proposed at the Port Authority after Bridgegate.  

Fox left the Port Authority and started a lucrative, extensive lobbying practice representing several transportation clients with business before the state and Port Authority, including United Airlines. In 2011 Fox and four United officials attended a dinner at the upscale Novita restaurant in Manhattan with Samson and Baroni. United sought benefits like lower flight fees, while Samson floated the idea of United creating a new flight route to Columbia, S.C., where he has a weekend home. 

United apparently did not immediately agree to adding this flight. That's when Fox allegedly transmitted a message that something United wanted would be taken off a Port Authority meeting agenda, according to Bloomberg News. Shortly thereafter, United added the flight route from Newark to Columbia. It lost money for the airline. 

Fox's lawyer said he always acted appropriately as a lobbyist. "During the entire time he worked with United, he represented his client well and with the highest possible professional and ethical standards," Fettweiss said.

Of the seven people at that Novita dinner, five have so far lost their jobs. Jeffrey Smisek, United's CEO, resigned earlier this month due to the federal investigation, as did two other executives at the dinner. Baroni and Samson were forced to quit their top two positions at the Port Authority after it became public that there was no traffic study associated with the George Washington Bridge lane closures. Three days after Samson resigned, the Chairman's Flight was cancelled.

See WNYC's timeline of the United investigation here.

Fox has not come under scrutiny from Democrats for either his Bridgegate lobbying, first reported here, nor his potential role in the Chairman's Flight, which has been under scrutiny for months. There have been no calls for him to resign, let alone testify before the investigative committee probing Bridgegate and other Port Authority malfeasance.

"I think we have to trust in Jamie Fox’s entire political career until we know more about what happened, and I’m sure the Justice Department will let us know if anything improper has been profferred," said Democratic State Sen. Ray Lesniak, a Democrat who is normally among the governor's harshest critics. "So we’ll wait to see until that evidence has come out."

Several Trenton insiders said Fox enjoys special status among Democrats -- he is deeply respected for his deal-making skills but also feared for his long memory when someone crosses him. Inside the Statehouse, Fox is called a "wheeler and a dealer" and a "mover and a shaker," but several state senators from both parties wouldn't speak about him on the record. 

Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, an industry group, called Fox "one of the smartest political minds I’ve seen in my tenure here."

"He knows the process," Bozarth said. "He plays the three pieces ahead of everybody else on the chessboard and he knows where everybody is coming from."

Liberal activist Jay Lassiter, another stalwart presence in the halls of the Statehouse, has observed Fox for years. "He has consistently operated a little bit above the ether in a nice suit and nice watch and he seems to have very powerful friends," Lassiter said. "And he always seems to come out on top."

Fox is largely unknown to the public, but he has been involved in Garden State politics since at least the 1970s. He has worked for and with the biggest Democrats over the last several decades: former Govs. McGreevey, Jon Corzine and Jim Florio, and former U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Bob Torricelli. And he's been at the center of the storm before, right there when scandal ended McGreevey's and Torricelli's political careers.

Reporter Michael Aron of NJTV, the dean of the Statehouse press corps, called Fox "the consummate insider in Trenton politics."

"Although he is a nice guy and charming guy," Aron said, his long success is "mainly because he's a tough guy."

In 2002 a New York Times profile quoted an acquaintance saying Fox's "knives are so sharp you don't even know you have been cut until you're bleeding.''

Earlier this year Fox gave an interviewer at Rutgers University insight into how governors get legislators to bend to their will. He said operatives like himself rely on relationships and might say to a legislator: "We will be there to help you when the time comes. If you stand up for us, we’ll stand up for you in a campaign."

And he referenced his own experience as a transportation commissioner. "Sometimes," he said, legislators agree to support a governor because "they get the road paved in their districts."

"I don't think I’d have my present job if I didn't have a relationship on the Republican side," Fox said. He got the job as Christie's transportation commissioner because he and the governor have a mutual friend, he said in the Rutgers interview. Sources say that friend is Samson, but Fox did not identify the person.

Among Fox's closest friends is the co-chair of the Legislature's Bridgegate investigative committee, State Sen. Loretta Weinberg. Asked if Fox tried to get her to drop her pursuit of answers in the lane closures scandal, Weinberg said "absolutely not."

"Jamie knows me well enough that he’d never attempt anything like that. If anything we had maybe a few light humorous conversations like: ‘I told them they shouldn’t try to mislead you in this manner,'" she said. She added: "I think he’s got a unique intelligence and a very good balance to know what’s right and not so right."

Weinberg said if need be, she would not hesitate to carry out her constitutional duties and call Fox to testify before her committee.

WNYC's senior editor for politics and policy, Andrea Bernstein, contributed reporting.

Matt Katz, New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC
Political reporter Matt Katz is The Christie Tracker at NJ Spotlight is hosting his blog and running his stories, which can also be heard on WNYC 93.9 FM and 820 AM, as well as New Jersey Public Radio: Trenton 88.1, Sussex 88.5, Netcong 89.3, and Toms River 90.3.
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