Christie Mentor David Samson Heads to ‘Gilded Cage’ in United Airlines Bribery Case

  • Samson avoids jail for home confinement in Carolina mansion
  • Community service to include restaurant job-training effort

David Samson will pay his debt to society by helping a nonprofit set up a soul-food restaurant to foster jobs training and employment while confined for a year to his South Carolina estate dubbed “Rest Period.”

Prosecutors had asked that the ex-chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey be sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to shaking down United Airlines to restore a money-losing flight more convenient to his house near Columbia, South Carolina. The judge disagreed, ordering the once-powerful lawyer to serve a year of home detention and four years of probation, perform 3,600 hours of community service and pay a $100,000 fine.

Samson, 77, will live in his elegant house furnished with what Augusta Magazine said are 18th- and 19th-century French and Italian antiques. He’ll also advise job seekers looking for work and help the Goodwill Industries try to develop a satellite campus of its private Helms College.

“There is some irony in the fact that the goal of the scheme was to make it easier for him to get to the house in South Carolina that he liked to spend his weekends at, and he’s now been sentenced to spending all of his time in that house,” said Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey.

Exhibit showing Samson’s vacation home.

Source: U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark

Samson attorney Justin Walder said in a statement that the judge recognized that his client “expressed deep remorse for his actions and has paid a significant personal and professional price. He looks forward to returning to his community and continuing his commitment to charitable activities.”

Judge’s Decision

U.S. District Judge Jose Linares in Newark said he wrestled with sentencing Samson for what was known as the “Chairman’s Flight," weighing his age, health, legal career and letters of support. Samson had served as a mentor to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, and was attorney general under Democratic Governor James McGreevey, setting up a powerful law firm along the way.

While prosecutors were stunned that Linares rebuffed them, such balancing is typical in a system where judges weigh not just the crime, but also the life of the offender. Over the past five years, federal judges have sentenced 1,131 defendants for bribery, and 26 percent received probation, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

“I certainly understand the government’s concern here that he was confined to a gilded cage,” said Geoff Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University and sentencing expert. “But unless his home is built by ill-gotten gains, and especially for a prominent defendant like this, home confinement still is a serious burden.”

Horse Country

Samson’s home confinement will take place in a community of equestrian enthusiasts. Prosecutors attached the article from the Fall 2014 edition of Augusta magazine to court papers in seeking a two-year term, the maximum called for under Samson’s plea agreement.

It describes “generous his-and-her closets and full baths with travertine tiles and black-granite counters,” as well as a dining room with a nine-foot-long table made of vintage wood planks.

“My favorite room in the house is the living room/dining room area, which is bright and colorful and sunny,” said Samson’s wife, Joanna, in the article. “We said it has to be colorful and it has to be livable. We have dogs and muddy boots and I don’t ever want to hold my breath because I’m worried about something getting dirty.”

In seeking a more lenient sentence, Samson’s lawyers included several letters from officials of the Goodwill agency in western South Carolina. Samson has already worked for Goodwill for the past eight months, including helping to develop the satellite campus for Helms College.

Samson has met with state officials to begin steps toward accreditation, wrote Shannon Ellis, a Goodwill board member. Samson has been “networking with friends, associates, business and civic leaders in our community to generate tremendous enthusiasm” for the project, she wrote.

Samson will help set up a Community Soul Restaurant, wrote James Stiff, president of Goodwill Industries of Middle Georgia Inc. His “warmth and sincerity” will help to “navigate the myriad legal, regulatory, administrative and practical issues.”

Prosecutors say that Samson’s negotiating skills were on full display after a 2011 dinner meeting with Jeff Smisek, then the chief executive officer of United Continental Holdings Inc. Samson asked if United would reinstate a flight from Newark to Columbia so he would have easier access to to his home. Smisek said he would consider it.

When United later balked, Samson had the Port Authority board 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 flew 27 times on the United route, which operated from September 2012 to March 2014. He pleaded guilty in July 2016.

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