Ex-Port Authority Head Avoids Prison for 'Chairman's Flight'

  • Samson sentenced to 4 years probation, year home confinement
  • Bribery plot involved United route to weekend home state

The former public official who pressured United Airlines to fly to an airport near his South Carolina weekend home was spared prison by a judge who sentenced him to a year of confinement in the same house, located in an affluent equestrian community.

David Samson, once the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was also sentenced Monday to four years of probation. Samson, 77, pleaded guilty to bribery last year after securing the “Chairman’s Flight” from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina.

Samson exits federal court in Newark, New Jersey, on March 6.

Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg

Prosecutors were stunned by the lenient sentence, having urged U.S. District Judge Jose Linares to impose a two-year prison term and avoid such a “slap on the wrist.”

But Linares said Samson served honorably over almost 50 years as a lawyer, including a stint as attorney general. Linares said he got four dozen letters attesting to Samson’s good works, including from three former attorneys general and ex-governor James McGreevey. He also cited Samson’s age, health problems, and the lack of serious harm to United. He said Samson had suffered greatly from his humiliation and loss of reputation.

“I am convinced by the letters I received that Mr. Samson is entitled to credit for a lifetime of good work and service,” Linares said in federal court in Newark. “He was a great lawyer, loved by many, with a great reputation. He was also someone who knew the law, knew the consequences of what he was doing, and should have known better.”

The judge also ordered Samson to serve 3,600 hours of community service and fined him $100,000.

Dramatic Fall

The case was a dramatic fall from grace for a powerful political insider who was a close adviser to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, and was attorney general under McGreevey, a Democrat. Samson pleaded guilty last July.

“I apologize to the public to whom I owe much better,” Samson told the judge. “I know I disappointed all of these people. I am deeply sorry for that. I take full responsibility for my action.”

The scandal over the South Carolina route also ensnared Jeff Smisek, the chief executive officer of United Continental Holdings Inc., who resigned with two other company executives last September. United paid more than $4.6 million in penalties to the U.S., and former United lobbyist Jamie Fox was charged with conspiracy to commit bribery. Fox, who served as Christie’s transportation commissioner, died last month. Hundreds of people attended a memorial service for him Monday. 

Prosecutor Disappointed

Prosecutors urged Linares to impose a “meaningful” sentence to deter other public officials. Outside the courthouse, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman expressed disappointment at the outcome of one of the most the high-profile cases in his seven-year tenure.

“I have enormous respect for Judge Linares,” Fishman told reporters. “He obviously struggled with that decision and saw the case differently than we did.”

Samson’s attorney Michael Chertoff argued that Samson received a narrow benefit when United reinstated the twice-weekly route from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina. Chertoff cited Samson’s public humiliation and his professional ruin, as well as health problems that include prostate cancer and tremors that alcohol helps to “palliate.”

Samson first raised the subject of the flight with Smisek at a dinner in Manhattan in September 2011. He told Smisek about his commute from Newark to Aiken, South Carolina, and asked Smisek if United would reinstate a flight to Columbia so he could avoid an hour of driving time from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Hangar Delay

Smisek said he would consider it. When United balked, Samson arranged for the Port Authority’s board to delay consideration of a plan for a United wide-body hangar at Newark Liberty International Airport, which included $10 million in public funding. After the board approved the project, the flight began months later. Samson took the trip 27 times.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna argued that “a sentence of community service just does not fit the crime. In short, it would not be punishment.”

Samson’s crime, he said, was well planned.

“It was one of the most audacious crimes we have encountered,” Khanna said. “Mr. Samson didn’t just cross the line between right and wrong -- he leaped over it.”

But Chertoff said Samson made no concessions to United on a host of other issues. The negotiations over the flight, he said, were unusual when United resisted Samson’s demand before ultimately relenting.

‘Test of Wills’

“It was a test of wills,” Chertoff said. “It was, ‘Am I going to be treated in a way that my office deserves from a respectability standpoint.”’

The judge noted that United and Smisek weren’t prosecuted, even though the ex-CEO was “complicit in this event.” Samson, he said, was wrong in pressuring United.

“He was able through his position of power to intimidate United to some extent to do something they did not want to do,” Linares said. Because United “pushed back and pushed back hard” on other matters, he questioned the extent of Samson’s intimidation and corruption.

“This crime was vindictive,” he said. “It was a complete abuse of power. It was corruption, and it is not to be tolerated.”

The case is U.S. v. Samson, 16-cr-00334, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).

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