Ex-boss of airport, bridge agency appears in federal court

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The former chairman of the agency that controls New York City-area bridges, tunnels and airports arrived at a New Jersey courthouse Thursday ahead of a planned court appearance and a news conference by federal investigators.

The U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey has been investigating whether David Samson, a political mentor to Republican Gov. Chris Christie, wrongfully used his Port Authority of New York and New Jersey post to get United Airlines to provide direct air service to South Carolina in 2014 to make it easier to get to his vacation home.

Former United CEO Jeff Smisek and two government relations executives left the airline last September after United conducted its own investigation. None of them has been charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

It’s unclear what Samson will do when he appears in a Newark courtroom early Thursday afternoon. His attorney was with him in court and didn’t immediately return a call and email seeking comment

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, the Port Authority’s inspector general and the FBI have scheduled a news conference for after the court proceeding.

United ended the half-filled flights just three days after Samson resigned his Port Authority post in March 2014 in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal that led to criminal charges against three other Christie allies.

Samson wasn’t charged in the bridge investigation. But an email from a Port Authority official to a Christie aide, both of whom were later charged, described Samson “helping to retaliate” after Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye ordered the lanes reopened.

Christie appointed Samson, a former state attorney general, to the Port Authority chairman’s post in 2011 after he led the governor’s transition team in 2009.

Samson resigned from the Port Authority a day after a law firm’s taxpayer-funded report cleared Christie of wrongdoing and laid much of the blame for the lane closures on the Christie aide. Samson wasn’t interviewed for the report.

The bridge investigation, combined with an earlier audit that called the Port Authority “challenged and dysfunctional,” trained a spotlight on the powerful agency and eventually led to questions about Samson’s interactions with United Airlines.

When Samson was chairman, United resumed direct flights to the South Carolina airport near his vacation home. Around the same time, Chicago-based United was pressing for concessions from the agency, including a new hangar at the Newark airport, rent reductions and a commuter rail-line extension that would connect the airport directly to lower Manhattan.

The Port Authority also wanted to increase flights to Atlantic City, while New Jersey struggled to revitalize the struggling seaside gambling resort. United began those flights between Houston and Chicago in April 2014, but they were typically half full and United canceled the service that December.

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