NEWARK, N.J. — David Samson, the former chief of a powerful public agency, who admitted to forcing one of the country's biggest airlines to initiate a money-losing flight from Newark to an airport in South Carolina so he could travel more quickly to his vacation home, won't spend a day in prison for his crime.
A federal judge on Monday sentenced Samson, 77, to four years of probation, including one year of confinement in his Aiken, S.C., home. Samson was also sentenced to 3,600 hours of community service over the course of probation, or about 19 hours a week, and must pay a fine of $100,000.
Prosecutors had sought two years of prison for Samson, a close friend of Gov. Christie and former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Samson "was able, through his position of power, to intimidate to some extent or coerce the airline into something they did not want to do," U.S. District Judge Jose L. Linares said during the two-hour sentencing hearing here.
Although Linares said the crime was "ridiculous" and a "complete abuse of power," he found that Samson's age, deteriorating health, and remorse, as well as damage to his reputation and letters from a number of current and former public officials that testified to his character, justified a lenient sentence.
Among those who wrote the judge were former state attorneys general and former Gov. Jim McGreevey, a Democrat who appointed Samson attorney general in the early 2000s.
Samson suffers from prostate cancer, tremors, and heart problems, his attorneys said.
Before learning his sentence, Samson told the judge, "I did something wrong. I violated the law. I deeply regret it."
"For the past 50 years of my life," Samson said, reading a statement, "I've tried to live my life pursuant to the highest moral and professional standards."
But in this case, Samson, standing in a courtroom just five miles from Newark Liberty International Airport, said, "I know I acted in a way that violated law and also violated my own standards of right and wrong."
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman told reporters that he was not happy with the sentence but respected the judge's decision.
Fishman said his goal was to "make sure the public understands that what Mr. Samson did, the magnitude of what he did, the seriousness of what he did, that there be a message sent to the public that we don't have tolerance for that."
"I think that message was sent," he said.
Samson pleaded guilty in July to a federal bribery charge, admitting that in 2011 he used the flight as a bargaining chip in negotiations with United Airlines over its request for a new hangar at Newark.
Continental Airlines, which later merged with United, used to operate a nonstop route from Newark to Columbia Metropolitan Airport. Continental eliminated the route in 2009, so Samson had to take a flight to Charlotte, N.C., and then drive to Aiken, which added 90 minutes of travel time. When Christie appointed Samson chairman of the Port Authority two years later, Samson inquired about reinstating the Columbia flight.
He put the question to United CEO Jeff Smisek on Sept. 13, 2011, over dinner with other United and Port Authority executives at Novita, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, according to court documents.
Smisek responded that the airline generally eliminated flights because they weren't profitable, but said he'd check on the matter, court documents show.
"I hope they dance to my tune," Samson wrote in a Sept. 28 email to Jamie Fox, a longtime friend who was lobbying on United's behalf. "Let me know if there's a way to keep pressure on this issue: it will save me a lot of heartache."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna cited the email on Monday and told the judge: "When they didn't dance to his tune, Mr. Samson then decided to flex his muscle as chairman of the Port Authority and use that power to coerce United to give him the route" closer to his vacation home.
Specifically, Samson admitted to removing from the Port Authority board's November meeting agenda a proposed agreement that would grant United a 25-year lease of land at Newark for the operation of a wide-body aircraft maintenance hangar.
Samson, allegedly conspiring with Fox, put the agreement back on the board's agenda in December, after Fox indicated that United was moving toward reinstating the route to South Carolina.
United executives allowed Samson to choose which days the nonstop flight should run; he picked Thursday and Monday, convenient for his weekend travel, prosecutors said.
United operated the flight, which again lost money, from September 2012 to March 2014, just after Samson resigned from the Port Authority amid fallout from the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal.
Indeed, prosecutors didn't begin investigating the airline shakedown until the bridge scandal erupted in January 2014 and heaped scrutiny on the Port Authority. Two former Christie aides, including a Port Authority executive, are to be sentenced next week in the corruption case.
"This is a sad day for David and his family and friends," Christie, a Republican, said in a statement. "The court has ruled and this chapter is now behind us. David will now pay the price for his bad judgment."
Samson took the flight, which he dubbed the "Chairman's Flight," 27 times. After conducting an internal investigation, United fired Smisek and a couple of other executives. The airline signed a nonprosecution agreement and paid a $2.25 million fine. No executive was charged.
Linares asked Khanna, the prosecutor, "United was complicit in this crime?"
"Absolutely, your honor," he replied.
Prosecutors argued that a "meaningful" term of imprisonment was necessary to deter other would-be corrupt public officials, appropriately punish Samson, and ensure that powerful people like him don't receive sentences lighter than a less-known, perhaps poorer, figure might.
"Given how severely public corruption undermines our democracy, the message must be sent … that abusing power for personal gain will absolutely not be tolerated," Khanna told the judge. "This is a notorious case with a high-profile defendant. He used his power to conduct bribery with a multibillion-dollar corporation."
Prosecutors also said that Samson's health concerns were not unique and that the Bureau of Prisons was "equipped to care for him."
Michael Chertoff, an attorney for Samson, said his client needed constant medical surveillance. "He's basically got the sword of Damocles over his head," said Chertoff, a former U.S. secretary of homeland security.
Chertoff said Samson's crime wasn't a "classic case of greed," but the result of a "battle of wills emerging" between the Port Authority chief and the airline.
Describing Samson's mind-set, Chertoff said, "Am I going to be treated the way my office deserves from a respectability standpoint?"
And the role of Fox — who was officially lobbying the Port Authority on United's behalf, but also working to secure the flight for his friend Samson — "created a kind of moral fog around what David Samson did," Chertoff said.
Fox, 62, of Lambertville, was charged in July with conspiracy to commit bribery. He died late last month from heart failure. Friends held a public memorial celebrating Fox's life at 3 p.m. Monday, just as Samson was leaving the courthouse.