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U.S. court sentences former NY-NJ ports chief in Newark-to-Columbia flight scheme

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David Samson, the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has been sentenced to one year of home confinement after admitting he pressured United Airlines to launch a nonstop, Newark-to-Columbia flight so he could spend weekends at his Aiken County residence.

SamsonSamson, who earlier pleaded guilty to one count of bribery, also was fined $100,000 and sentenced to four years’ probation, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.

An ally of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the 77-year-old Samson served as N.J. attorney general from 2002 to 2003 and was the founding member and chairman of the law firm Wolff & Samson P.C., which has since rebranded.

Former U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman, whose office prosecuted Samson, said he was disappointed with the sentence.

“We believe that Mr. Samson’s crime, which involved a substantial violation of trust by a high-ranking public official, warranted a significant term of incarceration,” Fishman said. “Obviously we’re disappointed in the sentence, but we respect the court’s decision.”

Fishman was among 46 U.S. attorneys fired Friday night by the Trump administration in a Justice Department purge of Obama appointees.

United operated the Newark-to-Columbia flight, which became known as the “chairman’s flight,” between Sept. 6, 2012, and April 1, 2014. Samson admitted in court that he used the service 27 times to fly to Columbia and then drive to Aiken, about 50 miles from Columbia, so he could spend weekends with his wife at his second home, authorities said. The service was discontinued three days after Samson resigned as chairman of the NY-NJ Port Authority.

The flight wound up costing United Continental Holdings Inc., parent of United Airlines, $2.4 million to settle a civil suit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission. That’s in addition to some $945,000 the airline lost to serve the lightly traveled route, documents showed.

The SEC said in a release that United agreed to pay the fine “in a case where shareholders wound up footing the bill so a public official could get more convenient flights.”

According to the SEC documents, United reinstated a nonstop flight between Newark Liberty International Airport and Columbia Metropolitan Airport at the behest of Samson, then chairman of the port authority, who sought a more direct route to his S.C. home.

The route was a money loser and was canceled by Continental Airlines prior to its merger with United, the SEC said. “A preliminary financial analysis conducted after Samson began privately advocating for the route’s return revealed it would likely lose money again,” the release said.

Nevertheless, United officials feared Samson’s influence could jeopardize the airline’s business interests before the port authority, including the approval of a hangar project to help the airline at Newark’s airport, the SEC said. The company ultimately decided to initiate the route despite the poor financial projections.

The same day that United’s then-CEO approved initiation of the route, the port authority’s board approved the lease agreement related to the hangar project. United employees were told “no proactive communications” about the new route.

According to the SEC’s order, United circumvented its standard process for initiating new routes, and no corporate record at United accurately and fairly reflected the authorization to approve the money-losing flight route from Newark to Columbia.

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