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Ally of New Jersey Governor Christie avoids jail for airline scheme

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former New Jersey attorney general and confidant of Governor Chris Christie avoided prison on Monday for pressuring United Airlines into operating a flight to an airport near his vacation home, a case that grew out of the Bridgegate investigation.

David Samson, 77, former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, could have received up to two years in prison after pleading guilty to using his position to coerce United into restarting a money-losing nonstop route between Newark, New Jersey, and Columbia, South Carolina.

The flight, which Samson privately called the "chairman's flight," made it easier for him to get to his summer home, according to prosecutors.

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U.S. District Judge Jose Linares in Newark ordered Samson to serve one year of home confinement and pay a $100,000 fine, after Samson's lawyers argued he should not be sent to prison because of his poor health.

Samson was accused of threatening to block United's plans for a new hangar at Newark Liberty International Airport unless United reinstated the flight.

United previously agreed to pay more than $4.6 million to settle related criminal and civil investigations without admitting wrongdoing. The scandal led to the resignation of United Continental Holdings Inc Chief Executive Jeff Smisek and two other executives, but no employees were charged.

Prosecutors had sought prison time, saying a stiff sentence for a high-ranking official would send a message.

"Obviously we're disappointed in the sentence, but we respect the court's decision," New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said in a statement.

The case emerged from the investigation into the shutdown of access lanes at the George Washington Bridge in September 2013. Fallout from the Bridgegate scandal damaged Christie's once-promising political career.

Two former Christie aides were convicted of orchestrating the closures to create massive traffic jams as payback for a local mayor's declining to endorse the Republican governor's 2013 reelection bid.

Christie, who has not been charged, denied any knowledge of the scheme, but the aides testified he was aware of the lane closures at the time.

Samson was not charged in the Bridgegate case. But his name came up at trial as one of several officials who appeared to have been aware of the plot as it unfolded.

The bi-state Port Authority oversees the bridge, which connects Manhattan and New Jersey, as well as all three major New York-area airports.

A consultant who was also charged in the United scheme, former state transportation commissioner Jamie Fox, died in February.

(Editing by Tom Brown and Phil Berlowitz)

 
 
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