Just as prosecutors seem to be closing in on David Samson, the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who is a close confidante of N.J. Gov. and presidential candidate Chris Christie, the chief executive officer of United Continental Holdings was today ousted from his job as the head of the nation’s second largest airline after an internal investigation into his relationship and dealings with the bi-state transportation agency.
Under Jeff Smisek, United had agreed to comply with a request from Samson to begin running a flight from Newark Liberty Airport, a facility owned and controlled by the Port Authority, to Columbia, South Carolina. The route was one of the airline’s least profitable, but happened to be convenient to Samson’s vacation home. According to a source the former Port Authority chief was fond of calling it “the chairman’s flight.”
United discontinued the flight three days after Samson was forced to resign from the Port Authority in the wake of federal and state Bridgegate investigations in early 2014.
Since last year, federal prosecutors have begun focusing on the relationship between the Port Authority and United Airlines, particularly the carrier’s involvement with Atlantic City’s international airport, which the Port Authority assumed control over under Samson’s leadership and at Chris Christie’s behest as part of an effort to bolster the fortunes of the long-suffering seaside resort.
In August, the Port Authority received a federal subpoena from U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman seeking records surrounding three of the agency’s board meetings in late 2011 concerning the renegotiation of United’s lease at Newark Airport. The subpoena went after emails, draft minutes, and memoranda and specifically sought records from Samson and former deputy executive director Bill Baroni, Gov. Christie’s top staff appointee at the agency who is due to stand trial in the Bridgegate matter later this fall.
It is unclear whether that subpoena specifically mentioned United Airlines, but it was nevertheless taken as a sign that prosecutors are building a historical pattern to claim that Samson abused his position as the chairman of the agency. Any indictment of Samson would likely be a devastating blow to Christie, as it was the governor who appointed Samson to the top job. Samson, a former state attorney general, also chaired Christie’s 2009 transition team.
In a statement, the company confirmed that the ouster of Smisek and two other senior executives at the airline were connected to the investigation of Samson and the Port Authority. “The departures announced today are in connection with the company’s previously disclosed internal investigation related to the federal investigation associated with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey,” United said. “The investigations are ongoing and the company continues to cooperate with the government.”
Smisek will be succeeded by Oscar Munoz, the COO of the railroad CXS.
Close to the same period when United Airlines was negotiating their 20-year, $150 million lease at Newark Liberty Airport, the Port Authority was also trying to entice the airline to begin running commercial flights to Atlantic City’s airport by offering to build a $1 billion commuter subway extension from lower Manhattan to Newark Liberty. On at least one occasion, August 23, 2013, Chris Christie and David Samson together met with United CEO Smisek to discuss this arrangement. Two months prior to that meeting, and two months after signing of the new lease at Newark, thirteen United executives donated a total of $31,500 toward Christie’s re-election effort. The donations all were made between June 5 and June 17, 2013; only two of the twelve contributors listed New Jersey residences. It was the only time that United management collectively donated to a New Jersey political campaign, and in that particular cycle they represented the single largest pool of contributions from a publicly traded company and the third-largest pool overall, trailing a medical group and state employees. Smisek and the two other United executives who resigned today were among those donors.