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Katz on Christie

A regular blog that keeps tabs on the activities and fortunes of our renowned Governor, Chris Christie.
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Mentor to Gov. Chris Christie to Appear in Federal Court

Matt Katz | July 14, 2016

One of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s closest friends and long-time mentors is expected to appear in federal court Thursday in connection to a sprawling scandal that has engulfed the Christie Administration. Sources say he will enter a guilty plea. 

David Samson, 75, who is Christie’s former appointee as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has been under federal investigation for allegedly bribing United Airlines executives to obtain a special flight route in exchange for lower fees at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Samson is a former state attorney general. He was named partner in one of New Jersey’s most powerful law and lobbying firms. 

Jeffrey Smisek, the former Chief Executive Officer of United -- the largest airline in the world -- lost his job over the deal. It’s not known whether he also will be charged. 

The case centers on what is now known as “the chairman’s flight” -- a non-stop United route that was allegedly added just to please Samson when he was chairman of the Port Authority. Prosecutors say United added the route from Newark to Columbia, S.C., in exchange for a reduction in fees at Newark Airport worth tens of millions of dollars a year. 

Those fees would have come out of tolls, taxes and fees the Port Authority relies on to fund its operations. 

Unlike other top Christie aides charged in the Bridgegate scandal, who Christie has characterized as “rogue employees,” Samson has been a friend and adviser to Christie since 2001, when Christie was appointed U.S. Attorney for New Jersey at about the same time that Samson became state attorney general. The two prosecutors, who are about two decades apart in age, grew close, developing what some intimates describe as a father-son relationship.  

Samson chaired Christie’s transition team after he was elected governor in 2009 and was the master of ceremonies at the governor’s inaugural ceremony. He served a variety of informal roles in Christie’s first term -- developing policy, strategizing on appointments and accompanying Christie on political trips around the country as he built a national profile toward a presidential candidacy.

Samson’s role in Christie’s orbit drew scrutiny following the Bridgegate scandal in 2013. The case centered on the two top staffers at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, both of whom worked closely with Samson. Baroni and Wildstein were later charged with closing lanes to the George Washington Bridge, which the Port Authority oversees, in order to create a traffic jam in a town where the mayor opposed Christie.

On the day the lanes were reopened by Port Authority officials from New York, Wildstein sent an email to Baroni expressing anger at the interference: “Samson helping us retaliate.” 

But even after that email was revealed -- even after Wildstein, Baroni and others were expelled from Christie’s team -- the governor stood by his mentor, defending him in public and dining with him in private.

It was only after Samson quit his post as part of what was described as a long-planned transition that the scandal surfaced. 

Thursday's indictments stem from a Sept. 13, 2011, dinner at Novita, an Italian restaurant near Gramercy Park and close to the Port Authority’s former offices. The dinner was attended by Samson, Smisek, Baroni and two former United Airlines executives who were fired in connection with the investigation. Also in attendance was Jamie Fox, a lobbyist for United who went on to serve as Christie’s transportation commissioner but resigned after being linked to the United Airlines plot.

According to a report in Bloomberg News, at the dinner, Samson complained to Smisek about his difficulty getting to his weekend home in Aiken, S.C., near Columbia. The city had once been served by direct flights, but they had been discontinued.

Samson followed up by threatening to stall some United business before the Port Authority, which runs three of the region’s airports. Not long after, United launched the special flight route. It was frequently only half full, even as the average “passenger load” for profitable flight routes is about 80 percent. 

The “chairman’s flight” departed from Newark Airport on Thursdays and returned on Mondays, making it inconvenient for most business passengers. Days after Samson resigned from the Port Authority in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal, United cancelled the route. 

During the period that Samson reigned at the Port Authority, United showered Port Authority executives with dinners and lunches. The airline held a special fundraiser in Chicago for Christie’s campaign for re-election, the first-ever such event for United. 

In August 2013, Smisek, Samson and Christie met in Trenton. Weeks later, Baroni began to implement a series of steps to arrange for lowering United’s fees at the airport.

United had invested heavily in Newark, rather than LaGuardia or Kennedy Airports in New York City. But the fees were still higher at Newark because of a complex formula, infuriating the airline and its executives. 

Baroni and Samson signaled they were willing to go along with United, even though the arrangement would deprive the cash-strapped Port Authority of tens of millions of dollars a year that could have been spent on airport improvements.

In November 2013, United sent Baroni an email memorializing the agreement and outlining further steps to implement the lowered fees.

But that deal never came to fruition.

At almost the exact same time the Port Authority, Trenton, and United were furiously hammering out a deal, top Christie aides were closing down lanes of the George Washington Bridge to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who had chose not to endorse Christie’s re-election campaign.

Through the fall of that year, journalists and later legislators began to shine a spotlight on the Port Authority, which maintained the lane closures had been the result of a “traffic study.”

But that explanation soon evaporated, and Baroni and his No. 2 man, Wildstein, were forced to resign.

A month later, the New Jersey Assembly released the now-infamous email “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” from Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly.

Christie fired Kelly, but when grilled by reporters, he stood steadfast by Samson. Even still, Samson continued to be the focus of damaging news reports and ultimately resigned. 

United returned to the Port Authority, demanding the alleged deal be honored. But those who had been party to it were no longer at the agency.

The fees were never lowered.

Matt Katz, New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC
Political reporter Matt Katz is The Christie Tracker at WNYC.org. 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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