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How a New Jersey bridge scandal led to downfall of a Chicago CEO
It was billed as the scandal that would end New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's presidential ambitions.But as Christie's campaign sputters on in the wake of "Bridgegate," an offshoot of the federal probe into his administration's handling of the affair instead claimed another, unexpected high profile scalp — United Continental Holdings CEO and President Jeff Smisek, who resigned Tuesday.Under investigation by the federal government as well as by United for allegedly improperly currying favor with powerful former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman David Samson by reinstating a money-losing route from Newark to an airport near Samson's South Carolina vacation home, Smisek and two other senior United executives exited after the completion of the airline's internal probe.It's a drama that marries alleged corporate corruption at the Chicago-based airline with accusations of political skulduggery in New Jersey, one of the handful of states that routinely appears alongside Illinois in lists of the nation's most corrupt.If Bridgegate revealed a staggering level of pettiness and incompetence in Christie administration officials who orchestrated a traffic jam to punish a Democratic mayor, business experts and lawyers say, the allegations against United — if proven — are almost as stunning."It's unbelievable that anyone could be so stupid," said David Primo, a professor of political science and business administration at the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester in New York. "It's very rare that you can see such an egregious quid pro quo. The probability that you're going to get caught is so high. You can't hide a flight."United — which merged with Continental, a major player at Newark, in 2010 — has repeatedly declined to comment on the probe beyond confirming that it is cooperating with federal officials and that the probe was the reason for Smisek's ouster.But a source familiar with the federal probe said investigators are looking at a Sept. 13, 2011, dinner meeting at a New York restaurant called Novita where United was lobbying Samson to improve transit connections between Newark and Manhattan and to help subsidize a new aircraft maintenance hangar for the airline. Samson in turn allegedly expressed his dissatisfaction with United's decision to not resume flights from Newark to Columbia, S.C.The termination of the route in 2009 meant that Samson and his wife Joanna had to drive 147 miles from the airport in Charlotte, N.C., to reach their $390,000 vacation home in Aiken, S.C., rather than the 49 miles from Columbia. According to a Bloomberg News account of the dinner meeting given by one of the attendees, Samson asked in a "playful, but not joking tone" whether United could reinstate the flight.The weekly flight, dubbed the "chairman's flight" by insiders, wasn't reinstated until nearly a year after the dinner, and only after Samson threatened to block projects United wanted the Port Authority to greenlight, Bloomberg reported. According to Bureau of Transportation statistics, the 50-seat plane was never near capacity on the flights.It was officially canceled four days after Samson resigned in April 2014, though a source said that United had made the decision to cancel the route months earlier.Records show that in the meantime, the Port Authority board approved a resolution to lease 3 acres of land to the airline for a new hangar and to reimburse up to $10 million for relocating a taxiway on the parcel. Samson voted in favor.Port Authority documents show that in addition to Smisek and Samson, Port Authority officials Bill Baroni, former United lobbyist Jamie Fox and United executives Monica Slater Stokes, Mark Anderson and Nene Foxhall — the latter two of whom also departed Tuesday — were all scheduled to attend the Novita meeting. None could be reached for comment Wednesday.But in the opinion of Primo, the Rochester professor, Anderson and Foxhall's alleged involvement looked particularly bad because both were government affairs executives. It "was their job" to prevent a scandal like this, he said.Nobody has been charged in connection with the alleged scheme to trade favors. But the case is being closely watched thanks to the 75-year-old Samson's close ties to Christie, whom he mentored in New Jersey politics, according to Jameson Doig, emeritus politics professor at Princeton University.Smisek and two other senior executives stepped down in connection with a federal probe of United Continental. Sept. 9, 2015. (Reuters)Smisek and two other senior executives stepped down in connection with a federal probe of United Continental. Sept. 9, 2015. (Reuters)The Port Authority acknowledged in bond documents earlier this year that the New Jersey office of the U.S. attorney had subpoenaed documents surrounding Samson's dealings with United, including details of flights his family took on United, details of the hangar deal and of Samson's trips to South Carolina. After the New Jersey newspaper The Record broke the story in February, United also confirmed that it had received federal subpoenas in connection with the case.Samson's attorney, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, did not return calls seeking comment.It is not clear where federal officials are in the case and whether they will seek charges.Samson has also come under scrutiny for other alleged conflicts of interest at his law firm, from which he also resigned, said Doig, who added that, beyond the United allegations, there was ample evidence Samson was "interested in using his position to advance his interests and those of his law firm" after Christie appointed him to the Port Authority.Just how much trouble United is in may depend on "whether or not they have any justification for reinstating those flights" beyond a quid pro quo with Samson, Doig said.Jeffrey Steinback, a Chicago attorney who has represented clients in high-profile white-collar crime cases, said that the federal government typically does not seek indictments unless it has "a very substantial case." Steinback, who said he was not familiar with the specifics of the United case and was speaking in general terms only, said prosecutors are more likely to file charges against corporations when it can be shown that executives at the highest level were involved in corruption.Charging a company allows the government to seek "a very substantial fine" and has a "chilling effect" on other companies considering wrongdoing, Steinback said.But Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said that though the timing of United's decision to reinstate the money-losing route and then cancel it again is troubling, prosecutors could still have a hard time proving that there was a corrupt deal."It doesn't look good," he said. "But that doesn't mean that you're going to be convicted of a crime."kjanssen@tribpub.comhgillers@tribpub.comcdizikes@tribpub.com

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