NEWARK, N.J. – A growing list of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s allies have pleaded guilty or have been charged in schemes involving their relationships at the powerful agency that runs airports, bridges and tunnels in New York and New Jersey, though Christie, a close ally of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald, faces no accusations of wrongdoing.
David Samson, a mentor to Christie who the Republican governor tapped as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, pleaded guilty Thursday to using his position to pressure United Airlines to reinstate a flight from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina, to make it easier to get to his vacation home.
Jamie Fox, a former lobbyist for United who Christie later named to a Cabinet post, was charged by federal prosecutors with soliciting the bribe. Fox’s attorney says he will fight the charge.
The news puts Christie’s judgment centre stage with Democrats calling it into question and Republicans defending him just as the party’s convention in Cleveland is about to unfold next week and as the governor is set to deliver a speech there.
A longtime friend of Trump’s, Christie is heading his White House transition team and is said to be on the businessman’s short list of possible vice-presidential picks. He is also a New Jersey delegate for Trump and is leading the delegation to Cleveland next week.
Samson was head of the Port Authority when two former allies of the governor were accused of shutting down lanes to the George Washington Bridge as part of a political retribution scheme. Neither Samson nor Christie were charged in that case. A third Christie appointee has pleaded guilty in that case, which is expected to go to trial in September.
Christie denied any wrongdoing and was cleared by a taxpayer-funded legal inquiry. U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said there’s no evidence he had anything to do with the bribery scheme Samson pleaded to.
But the bridge scandal in particular put a cloud over Christie’s political future. Democrats then and now have seized on both cases to criticize Christie.
“It undermines the already eroded confidence the public has that government is being operated for their benefit,” said New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who helped lead a committee that investigated the bridge case. “The governor is either a bad judge of character when it comes to making high level appointments or is not as forthcoming as he’d like us to believe.”
NO CONFIDENCE LOST
Christie’s approval ratings are at record lows in New Jersey, but some Republicans are behind him and point to the lack of charges as evidence that the governor has been put in a bind by misguided aides.
Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick says the public should “absolutely not” lose confidence in Christie over the bridge case or Samson’s guilty plea.
He cited the fact that the governor appoints hundreds of people to positions in state government and blamed the media for unfairly concentrating on the scandal.
“It’s very difficult these days to be an elected official, especially the governor,” Bramnick said. “The system is not perfect. But I don’t think that should cast aspersions on the governor.”
Dale Florio, a former local Republican chairman in New Jersey and a Trump delegate to the convention, defended Christie as well, saying the plea had nothing to do with the governor.
“There’s nothing new here. There was an expectation that ultimately something was going to come down,” he said.
WHAT’S THE LATEST?
Samson admitted he conspired with Fox to pressure United to reinstate the “chairman’s flight” to Columbia, not far from Samson’s vacation home in Aiken, by removing from a board agenda discussion of a hangar that United wanted at Newark Liberty International Airport, Fishman said.
Prosecutors will recommend that Samson get a sentence of probation to 24 months behind bars under a plea agreement. Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 20. His attorney, Michael Chertoff, said he wouldn’t have any comment until then.
Fox’s attorney Michael Critchley said his client would never jeopardize his reputation by engaging in illegal behaviour and was part of an arrangement that he thought was appropriate.
A spokesman for Christie did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
Associated Press writers Maryclaire Dale, in Philadelphia, and Geoff Mulvihill, in Haddonfield, New Jersey, contributed to this story.