By Andrew Seidman
In late September 2011, a lobbyist for United Airlines had some good news for his longtime friend David Samson, then chairman of the powerful Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Samson, a former top adviser to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, had recently asked the airline to resume a route between the Port Authority-run Newark Liberty International Airport and the airport in Columbia, S.C., that would make travel to his vacation home in nearby Aiken more convenient.
"You have them dancing," the lobbyist, Jamie Fox, told Samson in an email, court documents show.
Samson welcomed the development. "I hope they dance to my tune _ let me know if there's a way to keep the pressure on this issue: It will save me a lot of heartache," he told Fox.
On Thursday, federal prosecutors said Samson and Fox successfully ratcheted up the pressure on United _ with a bribe. And if what became known as the "Chairman's Flight" saved Samson time commuting to his vacation home, it ultimately cost him his reputation and quite possibly his freedom.
A former state attorney general and cofounder of the prestigious law firm Wolff & Samson, Samson, 76, of Aiken, pleaded guilty in a federal courthouse here Thursday to a felony corruption charge alleging that he abused his power as chairman of the Port Authority to "corruptly solicit, demand, accept, and agree to accept a thing of value" of at least $5,000.
His leverage: United, the largest carrier at Newark Liberty, was seeking approval of a new hangar that would allow the company to perform maintenance on its fleet on-site. The airline needed Samson on its side.
Samson took the money-losing nonstop flight 27 times between October 2012 and January 2014, according to court documents.
Under a plea agreement with the office of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Samson faces a sentence ranging from probation to two years in prison. Under the federal corruption statute he violated, Samson faces 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.
Samson was released on $100,000 bail.
Also Thursday, Fishman announced that he had charged Fox, 61, of Lambertville _ a longtime Democratic operative, as well as transportation commissioner under both former Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey and the Republican Christie _ with conspiring to commit bribery.
Five former Christie aides and appointees have now been charged with crimes in connection to their work at the Port Authority, uncovered during investigations of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal in 2013. Two have pleaded guilty.
Samson was New Jersey's attorney general in the early 2000s under McGreevey and led Christie's transition team in 2009 after Christie defeated Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine. Samson retired from his West Orange law firm in April; it then rebranded itself as Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi P.C.
At a news conference Thursday, Fishman noted that Samson and Fox each had distinguished careers in public service.
"That for me is what makes this case both so significant and, honestly, so sad," Fishman said. "As Mr. Samson admitted and as we allege against Mr. Fox, they both should have known better. They both did know better. And this kind of conduct, their conduct, shakes public confidence in our institutions of government."
As recently as last month, Fox, who resigned in October 2015 as transportation commissioner, appeared energized as he attended a Statehouse news conference where lawmakers had announced a tentative deal to replenish the fund for New Jersey's roads and bridges.
Fishman said he would not bring charges against United officials, several of whom, including CEO Jeff Smisek, were ousted from the company after it hired an outside law firm to conduct an internal investigation.
Fishman said the company had agreed to pay a $2.25 million fine and was cooperating in the case against Fox.
"As we move forward, continuing to earn and keep the trust of our employees, customers, shareholders, and the communities we serve around the world remains critical to our success," United CEO Oscar Munoz said in a statement Thursday.
Fox's attorney, Michael Critchley, said his client would "aggressively fight these charges."
Critchley said that Fox was "suffering from multiple serious illnesses" and that "anyone who knows Jamie knows that he would never jeopardize his reputation by engaging in the behavior alleged in the indictment."
Christie had remained steadfast in his support of his mentor. "David's a friend," Christie said in an interview in September 2015 after the United officials were fired. "I find all of this hard to believe."
When Samson resigned from the Port Authority in March 2014, Christie told reporters that he had "every faith and trust and confidence in David's integrity, as do people on both sides of the aisle in this state over the course of the past 40 years."
Christie's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
If Samson and Fox were optimistic about their hopes for a new route in September 2011, by the following month, prosecutors say, things weren't going so well.
United had essentially rejected the proposal, noting that the airline had previously scrapped the route because it wasn't profitable.
So, according to court records, the two discussed how they might get United officials to change their minds. On Nov. 2, 2011, Samson told his friend in an email that he was "reviewing current Board agenda items of interest."
"One on newark airport I think coming up," Fox responded, referring to the hangar agreement. "Maybe it needs further review!!!!!"
"Yes," Samson replied, "it's already off this month's agenda: I hate myself."
Indeed, at the board's Nov. 15 meeting, Samson had removed the hangar from the agenda.
Over the next couple of weeks, the documents show, Fox told United officials that Samson was angry and that reinstating the route was important to the "airline's relationship with the Port Authority."
A top United official indicated he would "become involved personally" in reassessing the airline's position, at which point Fox directed Samson to keep the hangar agreement on the board's December agenda.
On Dec. 8, the board voted unanimously in favor of the project.
"It worked," Fox wrote in an email to Samson that day. "Chicago just called to discuss how to get this done," he said, referring to United's headquarters.
About a week later, United agreed to accommodate the chairman's schedule: It would run flights from Newark to Columbia Metropolitan Airport at 6 p.m. Thursdays and from Columbia to Newark at 6:20 a.m. Mondays.
The flights would save Samson about 90 minutes of driving time, compared with his previous flights to Charlotte, N.C.
With everything finalized in January, Samson wrote to Fox: "you are the best.
(c)2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer