Ex-Port Authority chief pleads guilty to corruption uncovered by BridgeGate

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Thursday, July 14, 2016
Ex-Port Authority chief pleads guilty to corruption uncovered by BridgeGate
Anthony Johnson has the latest details.

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Former Port Authority Chairman David Samson pleaded guilty Thursday to a felony charge related to his regular use of a United Airlines flight from Newark to South Carolina.

The "Chairman's Flight" came to light in the federal investigation of the George Washington Bridge closures known as BridgeGate.

Samson was a longtime mentor to Governor Chris Christie.

United ended the half-filled flights just three days after Samson resigned his Port Authority post in March 2014 in the wake of the BridgeGate scandal that led to criminal charges against three other Christie allies.

Top officials in Christie's administration allegedly ordered the closing of access lanes to the bridge for four days in September 2013 to clog traffic and punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing the Republican Christie for reelection. Christie has not been charged and denied having knowledge of the closures.

Samson pleaded guilty to one federal count related to using his position to influence United to change a regularly scheduled flight's destination to Columbia Metropolitan Airport, which is 50 miles from his vacation home.

Samson wasn't charged in the bridge investigation, but an email from a Port Authority official to a Christie aide, both of whom were later charged, described Samson "helping to retaliate" after Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye ordered the lanes reopened.

He will not be cooperating with federal prosecutors, who are expected to seek prison time.

A former New Jersey Transportation commissioner was also implicatd in the bribery scheme. Jamie Fox, who at the time was a paid consultant and lobbyist for United, was charged in a separate criminal complaint with conspiring to commit bribery. United entered into an agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office to cooperate, to institute substantial reforms to its compliance program, and to pay a $2.25 million penalty.

Former United CEO Jeff Smisek and two government relations executives left the airline last September after United conducted its own investigation. None of them has been charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

Samson, a former state attorney general, led the governor's transition team in 2009, and Christie appointed him to the Port Authority chairman's post in 2011.

Samson resigned from the Port Authority a day after a law firm's taxpayer-funded report cleared Christie of wrongdoing and laid much of the blame for the lane closures on the Christie aide. Samson wasn't interviewed for the report.

The bridge investigation, combined with an earlier audit that called the Port Authority "challenged and dysfunctional," trained a spotlight on the powerful agency and eventually led to questions about Samson's interactions with United Airlines.

When Samson was chairman, United resumed direct flights to the South Carolina airport. Around the same time, Chicago-based United was pressing for concessions from the agency, including the new hangar at Newark, rent reductions and a commuter rail-line extension that would connect the airport directly to lower Manhattan.

The Port Authority also wanted to increase flights to Atlantic City, while New Jersey struggled to revitalize the seaside gambling resort. United began those flights between Houston and Chicago in April 2014, but they were typically half full and United canceled the service that December.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)