Late this afternoon, on the eve of a storm that is set to bring high tides and heavy winds to the New Jersey coastline, Gov. Chris Christie announced the sudden dismissal of the head of his transportation cabinet agency.
Jamie Fox, a veteran Democratic powerbroker, was chosen by Christie to lead the state’s Department of Transportation in late 2014. It was a surprising appointment at the time, and interpreted as a way for Christie to deploy Fox’s considerable political capital in the state legislature, which is led by the same Democrats who sanctioned the Bridgegate investigation.
What largely escaped notice at the time, however, was that Fox had been a top lobbyist in the state for United Airlines, the carrier now being probed in connection with a federal investigation of former Port Authority chairman David Samson, one of Gov. Christie’s top consiglieres.
Earlier this year it was reported that at a September 2011 dinner with United Airlines executives and Port Authority officials, Samson had asked now-former United CEO Jeffrey Smisek to create a route that would allow Samson to fly from Newark Liberty Airport to an airport in Columbia, South Carolina near Samson’s vacation home.
The airline agreed to this request, and continued to run the half-empty flight until three days after Samson’s resignation from the Port Authority in early 2013.
Jamie Fox, himself a former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, was at that dinner in his capacity as United’s lobbyist. When the airline initially stalled in creating the flight route, Samson removed an item important to the airline from the Port Authority board of commissioners’ meeting agenda. He communicated that move to the airline via Jamie Fox. Shortly thereafter, the airline began planning the flights to South Carolina – a route Samson and others reportedly called “the chairman’s flight.”
Smisek and several top executives in the airline’s government relations offices resigned in September in connection with an internal investigation United commissioned following the earlier press reports and the receipt of federal subpoenas from the office of U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman. As part of their inquiry, the feds have sought records of the airline’s communications with Fox.
In recent days, WNYC reported that in 2013 when Democrats in the New Jersey legislature were opening an investigation into the Bridgegate lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, Fox pressed them to back off from their probe, even after Bill Baroni offered now-discredited testimony that the Port Authority had been conducting a “traffic study” in Fort Lee, N.J.
Through a lawyer, Fox, who is a longtime friend of David Samson (both were in former N.J. Gov. Jim McGreevey’s administration), denied applying any inappropriate pressure to lawmakers. A member of the N.J. Assembly Transportation Committee, which was given subpoena power to lead initial inquiries into Bridgegate in fall of 2013, however, confirmed to me this week that Fox contacted him, furious about the investigation.
On the heels of that story, things got rougher for Fox this week when the Record revealed that as transportation commissioner Fox seemed to support relieving United of an obligation to repay $104,000 in public subsidies it owed to the South Jersey Transportation Authority (SJTA) after abruptly stopping service to Atlantic City International Airport. The Christie Administration and its officials at the Port Authority had been eager to see United fly to Atlantic City – a bright light in an otherwise dismal decline for the seaside gambling resort. But when the airline abandoned those flights just months later, it was required to pay back money – mostly used for advertising – to the agency.
As the state’s transportation commissioner, Fox chairs the South Jersey Transportation Authority. Records show he attended a November 2014 closed-door meeting where the agency’s board decided not to pursue those funds from United, the airline he had lobbied for until September of that year. The United matter had not been placed on the agency board’s public agenda, a requirement of the state’s public meetings law. Fox subsequently voted to strip out the one-year service obligation from future airline contracts. The Port Authority, which took over the management of Atlantic City airport from the SJTA, says it did not ask for such changes to future contracts, meaning that the impetus for the alteration likely came from Fox himself.
On Tuesday, a former director of N.J.’s state ethics commission (stop smirking), said Fox’s actions broke the law because state law bars officials from acting on issues involving former employers for at least one year, and that Fox should not have been in the room when the United payment was discussed.
Similar recusal issues have haunted David Samson, whose former law firm Wolff & Samson acted as bond counsel to the SJTA at the time the Port Authority assumed control over the Atlantic City airport. In a rare Star Trek IV-esque sci-fi-meets-infrastructure-agency move last year, the Port Authority’s board voted to go back in time and retroactively recuse Samson from discussions and decisions in which he had a business interest.
Christie’s statement late today only indicates that Fox will be returning to the private sector. Hours earlier at a press conference related to Hurricane Joaquin preparations, Christie was asked about rumors of Fox’s impending resignation and said, “there’s absolutely no reason for us to be addressing that when we have to address this [storm].” Asked whether Fox was in good standing in the state house, Christie told a reporter, “No reason why he wouldn’t be.”
Fox will depart the agency at the end of the month.
Brian Murphy is a TPM contributing editor and Baruch College history professor who writes about the intersection of money and politics. He is the author of Building the Empire State: Political Economy in Early America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter @Burrite.