Federal authorities have charged former state Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox with conspiring to commit bribery, in a count tied his role as a lobbyist for United Airlines and the case against former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman David Samson.
The charge, announced Thursday by U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, follow Samson’s guilty plea to federal bribery charges earlier in the day. Samson, the longtime founding partner of the powerful Wolff & Samson law firm in West Orange, admitted to using his official authority to pressure United’s parent company to implement a nonstop flight from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina, close to where he owned a vacation home.
U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman said Thursday that Fox at the time was a paid consultant and lobbyist for United Continental Holdings Inc., the airline’s Chicago-based parent company, and played a role in pressuring it to reinstate the so-called Chairman’s Flight. He outlined both Samson and Fox allegedly doing so using Samson’s official authority with the Port Authority, such as by threatening to delay consideration of United’s plan to build a new maintenance hangar at Newark Liberty International Airport in 2011.
Fishman’s cases against Samson and Fox
U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman Fishman offered these details about the cases against David Samson and Jamie Fox, citing court documents:
“The Port Authority operates Newark Airport, one of United’s largest hubs. In September 2011, several months after Samson became the chairman of the Port Authority, Samson and Fox met with representatives of United for dinner at a restaurant in New York. During that dinner and following a discussion of certain of United’s priorities for Newark Airport, Samson told the United representatives that Continental Airlines Inc., a predecessor of United, used to have nonstop flight route between Newark Airport and Columbia Airport, and that the route had made his travel from New Jersey to his home in South Carolina more convenient. A United representative responded that United generally stopped flying routes because they were not profitable, but told Samson that United would look into reinstating the Newark/Columbia route.
“Subsequent to this dinner and additional inquiries from Fox on Samson’s behalf, United concluded that reinstating the Newark/Columbia route would not be profitable and communicated United’s lack of interest to Fox. Samson and Fox used Samson’s official position and authority as chairman of the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners — which included control over the board’s agenda — to pressure United to reinstate the Newark/Columbia route. In November 2011, Samson and Fox were aware that an agreement between United and the Port Authority relating to United’s construction of a wide-body maintenance hangar at Newark Airport was to be presented to the Port Authority Board for its consideration at its Nov. 5, 2011, meeting. In an email exchange between Samson and Fox on Nov. 2, 2011, Samson and Fox discussed using Samson’s official authority to remove from the agenda the hangar agreement for the purpose of pressuring United to reinstate the Newark/Columbia route. Samson wrote Fox that he was ‘reviewing current Board agenda items of interest.’ Referring to the hangar agreement, Fox suggested to Samson that “(m)aybe it needs further review!!!!!,’ to which Samson responded “(y)es, it’s already off this month’s agenda: I hate myself.” Following through on this exchange with Fox, Samson caused the hangar agreement to be removed from the Port Authority Board’s agenda.
“In advance of the board’s next meeting, on Dec. 8, 2011, Samson and Fox continued to use Samson’s official authority to pressure United. On multiple occasions, Fox communicated to United that its failure to reinstate the route had made Samson angry and was having a negative impact on United’s relationship with the Port Authority. Samson and Fox also discussed further using Samson’s official authority over the board’s agenda to pressure United. On Dec. 7, 2011, the day before the Port Authority Board’s meeting, Samson sent Fox an email telling him that Samson had given instructions to remove the hangar agreement from the agenda. Fox responded that he thought it was a good time to put the agreement back on the agenda and Samson agreed to do so. The Port Authority Board then considered the hangar agreement on Dec. 8, 2011, and approved it. Fox later emailed Samson: ‘Finally have their (United’s) attention. Having item off/on this week worked,’ referring to the hangar agreement.
“As a result of the repeated use of Samson’s official authority to pressure United by Samson and Fox, United decided to reinstate the Newark/Columbia route. Based on Samson’s preferred travel schedule to South Carolina, which Fox communicated to United, the airline implemented a weekly schedule that only included flights from Newark Airport to Columbia Airport departing at 6:00 p.m. on Thursdays (with a returning flight the same night) and from Columbia Airport to Newark Airport departing at 6:20 a.m. on Mondays (after a flight to Columbia Airport the evening before). United began flying the Newark/Columbia route in September 2012 and operated the route until March 2014. Samson used the Newark/Columbia route on 27 occasions between October 2012 and January 2014. Samson and others referred to the Newark/Columbia route as the ‘Chairman’s Flight’ and Fox referred to it as ‘Samson Air.’”
Fox, 61, was charged in a separate criminal complaint, with United having agreed to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Fishman said. United has also agreed to “institute substantial reforms to its compliance program” and to pay a $2.25 million penalty.
The 76-year-old Samson, a former state attorney general and longtime confidant of Gov. Chris Christie, faces up to two years in prison under his plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, plus a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense.
Fox, the DOT commissioner from September 2014 to October 2015, faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. He will have an initial appearance at a date to be determined.
“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,” Fishman said in a prepared statement. “It’s a betrayal of our trust and what we have the right to expect from those in public life and it makes the job of every honest public employee just that much harder.”
In a prepared statement, Fox’s defense attorney indicated the former DOT commissioner got caught in a bad situation.
“Jamie has devoted his entire professional life to serving the citizens of New Jersey and his private clients honorably,” said Michael Critchley of Roseland-based Critchley, Kinum & DeNoia LLC. “Jamie is proud of the work he has done. Anyone who knows Jamie knows that he would never jeopardize his reputation by engaging in the behavior alleged in the complaint.
“Jamie is not a lawyer. Based on his interactions with (Samson), as well as the chief executive officer and other senior management from United Airlines, Jamie understood that the arrangement outlined in the complaint was fully vetted and completely appropriate. Jamie unfortunately has found himself caught in the middle of an arrangement that he believed was reviewed and approved by the necessary business and legal professionals.”
Fishman’s news release said, “United personnel understood that Samson wanted the route reinstated for his own personal use and that failing to reinstate it could adversely affect United’s business interests.” The airline found before and after reinstating the route that it was a money-loser, Fishman said, and United has acknowledged that at no time prior to reinstating the route did it consult with any legal counsel or compliance personnel.
United also failed to report discussions about the Newark/Columbia route to law enforcement.
Fishman’s announcement made no mention of the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal in 2013, which has ensnared several Christie allies.
Samson, the former chair of Christie’s gubernatorial transition team, left Wolff & Samson last April and has since been mostly out of the public eye. Following his departure, the firm stripped itself of Samson’s name and rebranded as Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi P.C.
United cancelled the service just days after Samson resigned from the Port Authority, and CEO Jeff Smisek resigned last September amid a growing federal inquiry into the matter.
Fox, a Democrat who also served as DOT commissioner under Gov. James McGreevey, was brought on by Christie in 2014 to help broker a deal for the ailing Transportation Trust Fund, which is still unresolved today. He stepped down last fall.
Critchley’s statement also included a reference to Fox’s health.
“Despite suffering from multiple, serious illnesses that are ongoing and have consumed him for the last year, Jamie Fox has always been a fighter and will aggressively fight these charges. Jamie will not allow this unfair stain to be the last word on his distinguished career.”