Port Authority chief gets house arrest in airline bribery case

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Story highlights

  • David Samson pleads guilty to using his power to create a nonstop flight from Newark to near his vacation home
  • The case came to light as part of the investigation into the so-called Bridgegate case

(CNN)"The chairman's flight," as Port Authority Chairman David Samson called it, perfectly fit his schedule.

The nonstop flight left Newark Liberty Airport for the small airport in Columbia, South Carolina, on Thursday evenings, taking Samson and his wife -- and plenty of empty seats -- to right near their vacation home.
The flight would then head back to Newark early Monday morning just in time for the workweek.
That the United flight fit Samson's travel preferences so well was not a coincidence, federal prosecutors said.
It was bribery.
Samson was sentenced Monday to one year of house arrest and four years on probation for using his Port Authority influence to pressure United Airlines officials to create a flight that personally benefited him, according to prosecutors. Samson will be confined to his home in South Carolina.
Samson, the former New Jersey attorney general and a staunch ally of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, pleaded guilty to bribery charges in July as part of a plea deal.
The lack of prison time was a blow for prosecutors, who had asked for up to 24 months in prison, according to court documents.
"We believe that Mr. Samson's crime, which involved a substantial violation of trust by a high-ranking public official, warranted a significant term of incarceration," US Attorney Paul Fishman said. "Obviously we're disappointed in the sentence, but we respect the court's decision."
Samson's attorneys said the judge issued a "fair and just" sentence.
"David Samson was an accomplished lawyer for over 50 years, with a history of public service, who made an aberrational error in judgment," Samson's attorney Justin P. Walder said. "He has expressed remorse for his actions and has paid a significant personal and professional price."

Origins in Bridgegate

The prosecution began as part of the federal probe into the so-called Bridgegate case and represents more fallout from the sprawling scandal that has embroiled Christie's administration.
Bridgegate revolves around the actions of officials with the Port Authority and the Christie administration in shutting down several traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge in 2013.
Former Port Authority Chairman David Samson resigned in 2014 amid fallout from the Bridgegate scandal.
Federal investigators have said the traffic jams were a form of political payback against the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had declined to endorse Christie in his re-election bid.
The Port Authority runs the bridge, as well as the three major airports in the New York metropolitan area.
Samson is the fourth political figure associated with Christie's administration to be convicted of criminal charges related to the Bridgegate investigation.
Bridget Anne Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff for Christie, and Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, were found guilty of fraud and conspiracy for their actions related to the George Washington bridge closures.
David Wildstein, another Port Authority official, pleaded guilty to orchestrating the bridge closure plan and testified at Kelly's and Baroni's trial to avoid prison time.

'It will save me a lot of heartache'

Samson's actions were sparked by United's cancellation of the Newark-Columbia flight, which the company said was not profitable. Samson, according to prosecutors, asked them to reinstate the flight, and threatened to withhold approval of an uncontroversial hangar lease agreement between United and the Port Authority.
Samson allegedly enlisted Jamie Fox, at the time a lobbyist for United, to help push executives to bring back the flight.
"I hope they dance to my tune," Samson told Fox, according to prosecutors. "[L]et me know if there's a way to keep the pressure on this issue: It will save me a lot of heartache."
United acquiesced to the demand and reinstated the flight, and the hangar lease was later granted.
Samson chose the days on which the company operated the flight to best fit his schedule, according to prosecutors. In all, Samson used the flight 27 times between October 2012 and January 2014, prosecutors said.
Samson resigned from the Port Authority in late March 2014 amid the investigation into the Bridgegate scandal. United canceled the Newark-Columbia flight a few days later.
Fox, who after leaving United worked in Christie's Cabinet, was charged with conspiracy to commit bribery for his role in the incident. He died two weeks ago with his charges still pending.
United Continental's CEO and two executives resigned in September 2015 amid the federal investigation into the bribery charges, and the company agreed to pay a $2.25 million penalty.