David Samson, Ally of Christie, Admits to Bribery Over Airline Route

David Samson, a longtime friend of Gov. Chris Christie, pleaded guilty to a felony count of bribery on Thursday and admitted that he had pressured United Airlines to operate a weekly flight to South Carolina for his personal convenience.

The plea, which was offered before Judge Jose L. Linares of United States District Court in Newark, appears to put an end to Mr. Samson’s career as a public official and power broker. And it casts a shadow over the political fortunes of Mr. Christie, a New Jersey Republican who until this week had been considered a potential running mate for Donald J. Trump, the party’s presumptive nominee for president.

“One of the problems with Chris Christie is there are skeletons in his closet that still have skin on the bones,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said.

The prosecution of Mr. Samson grew out of a federal investigation into the closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in 2013. Federal prosecutors contend that allies of Mr. Christie at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey conspired to tie up traffic on the New Jersey side of the bridge to punish a local mayor for declining to endorse Mr. Christie’s bid for re-election as governor.

Mr. Samson, who was Mr. Christie’s appointee as chairman of the Port Authority at the time of the lane closings, has not been charged in that case. But two of the governor’s former allies, Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, are scheduled to stand trial in September for their alleged roles in the bridge-traffic scheme. A third, David Wildstein, has already pleaded guilty in that case.

Paul J. Fishman, the United States attorney for New Jersey, declined to say whether Mr. Samson was cooperating with the prosecution of the lane-closing case. The Port Authority is the nexus of the two matters because it operates the bridge and the three big commercial airports in the New York City area.

Mr. Fishman said that Mr. Samson, 76, had abused his position at the agency by coercing United to reinstate a canceled route between Newark Liberty International Airport and Columbia, S.C., near one of Mr. Samson’s homes. He said Mr. Samson had threatened to block the construction of a maintenance hangar for United at the airport unless the airline restored the “money-losing” flight.

Tall and broad-shouldered, Mr. Samson, a former New Jersey attorney general, spoke on Thursday in a soft voice when the judge asked if he understood that he could spend up to two years in prison and that his license to practice law might be affected. He said he did.

Judge Linares scheduled a sentencing hearing for Oct. 20.

Mr. Fishman said he was saddened because “David Samson was a major force in the legal community in New Jersey.” He added, “This kind of case shakes public confidence in our institutions of government, when people who are so accomplished and who have occupied so many positions of public trust misuse their authority to get something for themselves.”

Mr. Fishman also announced that Jamie Fox, a former executive of the Port Authority and former transportation commissioner in New Jersey appointed by Mr. Christie, had been charged with conspiring to commit bribery in connection with the flight. Mr. Fox, who was a lobbyist for United, advised Mr. Samson on how to pressure the airline to acquiesce to his demand, Mr. Fishman said.

In one email exchange, he said, Mr. Fox told Mr. Samson, “You have them dancing.” Mr. Samson wrote back: “Good. 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.”

The Port Authority staff had recommended that its board of commissioners approve a lease deal with United for the hangar. But Mr. Samson, who controlled the agendas of the board’s meetings, pulled the matter off the agenda in November 2011, Mr. Fishman said.

Mr. Fox then advised Mr. Samson to bring it up for a vote at the December 2011 meeting to demonstrate his clout to United, Mr. Fishman said. Less than a year after the hangar deal was approved, United started flying a plane every Thursday evening from Newark to Columbia, a short drive from Mr. Samson’s home in Aiken, S.C. Every Monday morning, United flew a plane back to Newark. Mr. Fishman said that Mr. Samson used the flights 27 times.

Mr. Fishman said Mr. Samson and other agency officials called the route “the chairman’s flight,” adding that Mr. Fox referred to it as “Samson Air.”

Mr. Fox, 61, faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“They both should have known better,” Mr. Fishman said of Mr. Samson and Mr. Fox. “They both did know better.”

Although Mr. Fishman said United “caved” to the pressure from Mr. Samson, neither the airline nor any of its executives will be charged in connection with the case. United agreed to pay a penalty of $2.25 million, he said.

Mr. Fishman said United had cooperated and responded just as prosecutors would have wanted. He noted that among the actions the airline took were the dismissals of several executives, including Jeff Smisek, its former chairman and chief executive.

United stopped flying the route soon after Mr. Samson resigned from the agency in 2014. He retired last year from Wolff & Samson, the law firm he helped found.

The firm had been very close to the state’s government for decades and had served as outside counsel to state agencies. It had also lobbied agencies on behalf of clients seeking state contracts, favorable regulation changes and approval for large development projects.

The firm immediately changed its name to Chiesa, Shahinian & Giantomasi. Jeff Chiesa, one of the partners, worked for Mr. Christie in the United States attorney’s office, and as his chief counsel and attorney general. He was appointed by the governor to temporarily fill the United States Senate seat left open when Frank R. Lautenberg died in 2013.

After the hearing on Thursday, Mr. Samson exhaled deeply as one of his lawyers, Justin Walder, escorted him away from the courtroom. He and Mr. Walder declined to comment.

Another of Mr. Samson’s lawyers, Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of homeland security, said, “The next you’ll hear from us is at the sentencing.”

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