NEWARK, N.J. — The former head of one of the nation's most powerful transportation agencies and a longtime mentor to Gov. Chris Christie was sentenced Monday to four years' probation and home confinement for pressuring United Airlines to reinstate a money-losing flight route to give him easier access to his weekend home.
Many in the courtroom sat stunned as U.S. District Judge Jose Linares imposed a sentence that will allow David Samson, former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to serve his year of home confinement likely at the South Carolina residence that was the object of the scheme that landed him in court.
Samson, 77, who pleaded guilty to bribery last year for the backroom deal, could have faced as much as two years behind bars under his plea agreement. He and Christie have been close for years, and he headed Christie's transition team after Christie's 2009 election. Christie appointed him to the Port Authority in 2011.
Linares told the packed courtroom that the volume of letters he received from high-ranking public officials in support of Samson — including from former Gov. Jim McGreevey and three former state attorneys general — helped sway him to impose the lighter sentence.
While Linares called Samson's crime "a complete abuse of power" and said the details "befuddle the mind," he said Samson "is entitled to some credit for a lifetime of good work and public service." The damage to his reputation "has a punitive aspect to it, which affects people like Mr. Samson very severely," Linares added.
Samson left the courthouse without commenting. During brief remarks to Linares, he was contrite.
"I know I violated the law and violated my own standards of right and wrong," he said. "I deeply apologize. First and foremost to this court, and I apologize to my family and friends and I apologize to the public to whom I owed much better."
During the sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna urged Linares to impose a harsher sentence and said probation would "send a loud and clear message that even brazen acts of corruption like this one wouldn't really be punished at all."
Afterward, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said he was "obviously unhappy" with the sentence.
"The message we wanted to send to the public is when people abuse the public trust they're going to be punished appropriately," he said. "In this particular instance the court was moved, obviously, by the fact Mr. Samson has had a long and distinguished career at the bar in New Jersey, lots of incredibly important public service, and ultimately the court found that more persuasive than the need for general deterrence."
Linares also sentenced Samson to 3,600 hours of community service and imposed a $100,000 fine.
According to court filings, Samson wound up saving roughly an hour's driving time by flying into Columbia, South Carolina, to his home in Aiken instead of from Charlotte, North Carolina. United discontinued the flight shortly after Samson resigned in early 2014.
Samson began to lobby for the flight almost as soon as he became chairman, Khanna told the judge. United agreed to revive the flight at a time it was seeking a deal with the Port Authority for a new hangar at Newark Liberty International Airport.
"He wasn't lobbying United for something New Jersey residents were clamouring for or something the Port Authority needed," Khanna said. "He asked one of the world's largest airlines to create a flight route just for him."
United Airlines was fined more than $2 million, and then-CEO Jeff Smisek and two other high-ranking United officials were forced out in September 2015.
The Port Authority oversees billions of dollars in assets and revenues and operates the New York area's major airports as well as bridges, tunnels, ports and the World Trade Center. Revelations about what was jokingly dubbed "the Chairman's Flight" came on the heels of the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal, which culminated in the criminal convictions of two former Port Authority officials in a political retaliation plot.
Samson wasn't charged in that scandal, though the scheme's admitted mastermind testified Samson knew about the plot before it was put into action.
David Porter, The Associated Press