UPDATED: Scandal Probes Claim Another Christie Appointee

Matt Katz | October 2, 2015 | Katz on Christie

And then there was one.

Four years ago, seven people sat down to dinner at Novita Italian restaurant in Manhattan.  A federal probe is now examining whether that meal was the start of a bribery plot by United Airlines.

The dinner included seven allies of Gov. Chris Christie including former CEO of United Airlines, Jeff Smisek, and the former Chairman of the Port Authority, David Samson. Also there: Jamie Fox, then United’s lobbyist.

At 5:03 p.m. on Friday, barely a year after he had been appointed by Christie as New Jersey Transportation Commissioner, Fox abruptly resigned. The stated reason was a “planned transition to the private sector.” When Samson and former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni resigned from the Port Authority in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal, Christie also said those resignations had been planned.

Missing from Christie’s statement on Fox: boilerplate language thanking Fox for his service, typical in such releases.  Both Samson and Baroni were praised by Christie as he announced their resignations.

The resignation came just hours after Christie had assured reporters Fox was fully involved in preparations for the nor’easter and Hurricane Joaquin, even though Fox had skipped two days in a row of storm press conferences.

And it came at the end of a week of news reports buffeting Fox, including reports on WNYC that he tried to halt the Bridgegate investigation and that records of meetings with Fox were hidden from documents released by the Port Authority. The AP had reported that Fox didn’t properly recuse himself from United Airlines business while transportation commissioner. Fox’s attorney said he had always acted appropriated and ethically. 

Fox said in a statement Friday that he plans to return to the private sector. His departure, a little more than a year after his appointment, also comes as New Jersey lawmakers struggle to find a clear path forward on funding road work next fiscal year.

“I returned to government understanding it would entail a personal sacrifice and that it would not be a lengthy stay,” Fox said in a statement. “I had hoped that we could secure a credible long-term solution for the Transportation Trust Fund within a year. I deeply regret we were unable to do so, and with a year behind me, it is time for me to return to the private sector and pursue new opportunities.”

Federal prosecutors are looking at whether Samson, the former Port Authority chair, pressed United Airlines to set up a special flight route for him, known as “the chairman’s flight,” to Columbia, S.C., near Samson’s weekend home.   Around this time, United was lobbying for improvements to its facilities at Newark Airport, and over the next three years would enter a complex series of negotiations involving other benefits to the airline, including massive reductions in flight fees and a PATH train direct to Newark Airport.

During this period, United executives also made unprecedented contributions to Christie’s re-election campaign, and agreed to start flying to Atlantic City airport, a key Christie political priority.

“There’s absolutely no reason for us to be addressing [Fox’s resignation] when we have to address this,” Christie said, referring to the storms. “I appreciate all of your concerns for Commissioner Fox, but he is at work, and working hard, along with deputy commissioner [Joseph] Bertoni, to make sure that our transportation systems, both rail and automobile, around the state are in good working condition so that folks can make their way around the state despite whatever weather challenges we have.”

Fox previously worked as a top aide to former Gov. Jim McGreevey, including a stint as his transportation chief in 2002, and to U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli.

Fox’s second tenure as transportation commissioner has been dominated by debate over the state’s transportation trust fund, which faces insolvency with no agreement over raising the gasoline tax.

At Friday’s storm preparation press conference, Christie did not wear the blue fleece made famous during the days after storm Sandy. “The real fleece is in my closet, and will only be broken out in case of real emergencies,” Christie told reporters Friday at a storm press conference in Sea Isle City, on the Jersey Shore. He then added: “Natural emergencies, not political ones.”