Christie’s United Airlines Problem

Matt Katz | September 9, 2015 | Katz on Christie

A day after the CEO of United Airlines resigned amid a federal investigation into the company’s relationship with the Port Authority, Gov. Chris Christie faced questions about the involvement of one of his closest friends and advisers.

“My entire life has been about making sure the law is enforced, and making sure people uphold a certain ethical and legal standard in their conduct in office,” Christie told host Jake Tapper on CNN.

“The fact is when you have 60,000 people working for you there are going to be occasions where people don’t hold up that standard. I don’t know if this is one of those instances or not. But when I have had instances like that I’ve acted strongly and decisively.”

Tuesday’s announcement that United CEO Jeff Smisek is resigning from the company comes as the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey continues to investigate whether the airline provided a special flight route, known as the “chairman’s flight,” for former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, Christie’s friend and appointee. Samson has a weekend home in South Carolina.

The flights left Newark Liberty Airport on Thursdays and returned on Mondays. Investigators want to know if the flight route was created to get the Port Authority, which operates the airport, to reduce United’s fees for using the facility. United also wanted the Port Authority to extend the PATH train from midtown Manhattan to the airport.

(See WNYC’s timeline of the United investigation here.)

Samson has been described as Christie’s mentor and a father figure who gave him personal and political advice. His law office served as Christie’s unofficial campaign headquarters during the 2009 gubernatorial campaign, and after Christie was elected he was chairman of Christie’s transition team. Four years later, Samson traveled with Christie on political trips and was said to be sketching out how to fill cabinet positions in the administration for the second term.

On Wednesday Christie said Samson continues to be a friend. He has even visited Samson in Aiken, S.C., where the weekend house is located. Samson’s home is notable for its 2,000-year-old statues dating from the Han Dynasty and has been profiled in a local magazine.

As Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority, Samson was United’s main contact. WNYC reported last spring that Smisek and other United executives had meetings and pricey meals with top officials, including the governor. United executives Nene Foxhall and Mark Anderson, who also resigned Tuesday, contributed to Christie’s reelection campaign as part of a $24,000 bundled donation. Neither Foxhall nor Anderson lived in New Jersey at the time.

Samson and United appeared to have reached a deal on lower flights fees, but it blew up after Bridgegate broke in January 2014. An email released at that point indicated that Samson was being asked to “retaliate” against New York Port Authority officials after the reopening of the closed bridge lanes.

At the time, some in Christie’s inner circle told the governor to cut Samson loose, sources say, because he was a liability due to email chatter about him in the Bridgegate scandal. But Christie made a fateful decision — he’s known to be loyal to a fault — and he stood by the man he calls “the general.” (Samson is a former New Jersey attorney general.)

Days after Samson finally resigned in March 2014, his “chairman’s flight” was cancelled. It was losing money for the airline because it was such an unpopular route.

Unlike Bridgegate, where people allegedly did something nefarious on Christie’s behalf — punishing an anti-Christie mayor with a traffic jam — there is no evidence here that Christie got anything out of Samson’s flights. So Christie is not in legal danger.

But the Christie campaign is bracing for charges against others, like Samson. Some close to the campaign are concerned that donors will worry about the noise and move on to other candidates.

Other campaign insiders are confident that if Christie survived the Bridgegate indictments last May he can certainly survive this. So far the matter has not gotten traction in the conservative media, which Christie’s advisers view as encouraging news.