According to a report published last night in the Bergen (NJ) Record, federal investigators working for the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey in January subpoenaed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for records relating to the personal travel of its former chairman, David Samson. Included in the report, written by the indefatigable Shawn Boburg, were details surrounding a now-cancelled nonstop flight route that United Airlines briefly ran between Newark Liberty Airport and Columbia Metropolitan Airport in South Carolina, less than an hour from Aiken, South Carolina, where Samson has owned a home since 2006. United ran that flight for nineteen months before canceling the route on April 1, 2014, three days after Samson resigned from his position as the head of the bi-state agency with an annual budget of just under $8 billion. According to an insider, Samson referred to the briefly-lived and lightly-used Newark-Columbia route as “the chairman’s flight.”
For months there have been signs that U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s investigation of September 2013 toll lane closures on the George Washington Bridge has ventured deep into the offices and activities of officials at the agency, and well beyond interrogating the now-debunked claim that the closures were part of a “traffic study.” Former Port Authority deputy director Bill Baroni, agency director David Wildstein, Gov. Chris Christie’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, and former Christie re-election chief Bill Stepien are all thought to remain at risk of being indicted if and when Fishman unveils charges. So are several members of government relations staffs at both the agency and in the N.J. governor’s office, as well as one staff member in the agency’s counsel’s office whose legal representatives have figured prominently in bills obtained through FOIA requests to the Port Authority. I recently reported that Ray Pocino, the vice president of the N.J. Laborers and a Port Authority commissioner, was interviewed last fall by federal prosecutors not long before Governor Christie himself was questioned by Fishman’s investigators at the governor’s mansion in Princeton, N.J.
But until now it has been unclear whether Governor Christie is a target of Fishman’s investigation, largely because it has been unclear how deeply David Samson would be implicated in any wrongdoing at the Port Authority.
Samson is an almost legendary figure in New Jersey politics, a former New Jersey attorney general who has worked for both Democratic and Republican governors. He was one of Christie’s closest supporters, chairing the governor’s transition team and emceeing Christie’s 2010 inauguration. Christie appointed Samson to be chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2010 and he was confirmed in early 2011.
It has become apparent in the last year, however, that Samson monetized much of the goodwill and connections he built up over his long career by positioning his law firm, Wolff & Samson, on both sides of many public agency actions and deals. Last year I reported for TPM on a Port Authority-funded land use study in Hoboken that would have exclusively benefitted one of Wolff & Samson’s clients. Samson was soon shown to have been personally involved in so many deals that he took the unusual step of retroactively recusing himself from certain Port Authority board votes shortly before resigning from the agency last March. The sensational revelation surrounding “the chairman’s flight,” can therefore be seen in some ways as more of the same.
But it isn’t.
In the event that David Samson is indicted, it is widely expected that the 75-year-old former Port Authority chairman would be eager to cut a deal rather than risk serving a prison sentence. The subpoenas to the Port Authority and to United Airlines suggest that Fishman’s team have discovered (or been directed to) exercises of influence that have nothing to do with Bridgegate and everything to do with the way Samson and Christie collaborated to use the agency.
Something not mentioned in the Record’s story was that in the same period that United Airlines was negotiating a 20-year, $150 million lease at Newark Liberty Airport, the Port Authority was also reportedly 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 Airlines CEO Jeffrey 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.
Between 2012 and 2015 United Airlines also participated in funding Christie’s political expenses by joining Choose N.J., the economic development agency charged with promoting New Jersey as a business destination. The organization, a 501(c)3 that is not required to list its donors or expenses, has helped arrange and cover expenses for Governor Christie’s high profile visits to Israel, Mexico, Canada, and most recently, London. According to Choose N.J.’s spokeswoman, United Airlines signed on as a “partner”-level member in 2012, pledging $25,000 per year to the organization for three years for a total financial commitment of $75,000.
There is, therefore, a documentable set of donations from United Airlines to Governor Christie’s campaign and to an organization involved in some of Governor Christie’s most high-profile overseas travel, all made during a time when that company had business before an agency helmed by Christie appointees, some of whom served at Christie’s pleasure, and all of whom were in a position to help determine the terms, fees, rates, and details of contracts and agreements between the Port Authority and the airline.
The revelation of “the chairman’s flight” is a sign that investigators are gaining leverage over David Samson. In the event they want to turn him into a cooperating witness against Governor Christie, all he would have to show is that Christie directed him to ask United Airlines for contributions. Alternatively, United could simply show evidence that they felt pressure to donate. In the wake of Samson’s departure, United dropped its Atlantic City flights and filed an 81-page complaint against the Port Authority with the Federal Aviation Administration, alleging mismanagement at the agency and extortionately high fees at Newark Liberty. We can already see that United went through the trouble of setting up and operating a money-losing route just to satisfy the travel appetite of the chairman of the Port Authority.
Is it a stretch to think David Samson might have asked them for other things, too?