NEWARK--David Samson, the powerful former chairman of the Port Authority who pleaded guilty to shaking down one of the nation's largest airlines for a better flight to his South Carolina vacation home, is asking a court to spare him prison.
Dozens of friends, family members and public officials--including former Gov. James McGreevey--also wrote letters to the court seeking leniency for the well-connected lawyer and close friend of Gov. Chris Christie, after a spectacular fall from grace growing out of the so-called Bridgegate investigation, which led to criminal charges against two other members of Christie's inner circle.
The release of a defense memorandum and letters on Samson's behalf offered a rare look at the behind-the-scenes appeals taking place in advance of next week's scheduled sentencing before U.S. District Judge Jose Linares, and came after attorneys for NJ Advance Media went to court seeking release of those filings under the First Amendment.
"Put simply, these documents have historically been open to the press and general public, and play a significant and positive role in the public's oversight function at sentencing," argued attorney Justin Quinn of Robinson Miller in Newark. "These submissions--like other legal briefing--are instruments of advocacy, as they are submitted to persuade the court on critical sentencing issues."
While public in many other federal districts across the country, sentencing briefs are not routinely released by the courts in New Jersey.
Samson, 77, pleaded guilty last year to using his clout to coerce United Airlines to schedule a non-stop flight from Newark to South Carolina to make it easier to get to his vacation home. Although the crime to which he pleaded guilty has a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, under federal sentencing guidelines he faces a term that could range from probation or up to 24 months in prison, prosecutors have said.
In a 252-page filing to the court, Samson's attorneys urged a sentence of probation with community service.
"This is a unique case that requires a unique and fair sentence," they wrote. "While some public corruption charges may warrant a sentence of custodial incarceration, David's offense does not resemble any other public corruption case--no financial gain, no corrupted judgment, and no threat of commercial harm to the public."
They said Samson "has been publicly and politically disgraced despite decades of laudable public service."
They also cited his poor health.
"One of David's doctors has reported to the probation department that David is 'very likely in the last few years of his life' and that 'if this patient is subjected to incarceration of any kind, it is likely to result in a progressive worsening of his already bleak medical and psychiatric condition,'" said attorneys Michael Chertoff and Justin Walder.
The sentencing recommendations of the U.S. Attorney's office have yet to be made public, but Samson's attorney's challenged the government's assertions that he "abused his position over the course of approximately three years."
Once New Jersey's attorney general and a respected attorney who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations over the years and was appointed chairman of the Port Authority by Christie, Samson began to come under mounting scrutiny by federal prosecutors more than a year ago in the wake of the Bridgegate investigation.
That case led to criminal charges against Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Anne Kelly, a one-time deputy chief of staff to the governor. The two were found guilty last November of helping orchestrate a series of toll lane shutdowns at the George Washington Bridge in 2013, meant to cause massive traffic backups in a scheme of political retribution targeting Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich over his refusal to endorse Christie for re-election. Both are scheduled to be sentenced in March.
Christie was never charged with any wrongdoing in the scheme.
While Samson was chairman of the bi-state agency at the time the Bridgegate scandal broke, he was not charged with any wrongdoing in connection with the lane closures. But it was Samson's lobbying of United Airlines on his own behalf, that led to criminal charges of corruption.
He pleaded guilty in July to charges of bribery, after pressuring United Airlines to accommodate his desire for regular nonstop service from Newark Liberty International Airport to South Carolina, where he owns a second home in Aiken, by delaying the airline's request for approval to building a new hanger at Newark Liberty.
The Port Authority operates Newark Liberty, where United is a major tenant.U.S. attorney discusses David Samson's guilty plea and charges against Jamie Fox
Samson admitted he removed from the Port Authority's agenda a request by United to build a hangar for wide-body airplanes after being told United was not planning to reinstate the route. But in a backroom deal, the hangar was approved by the Port Authority board in December 2011. United subsequently reinstated the South Carolina flight.
The twice-weekly direct flight, which was rarely filled, charted a route from Newark Liberty Airport to Columbia Metropolitan Airport, in West Columbia, S.C., and cut Samson's travel time to his second home by hours. It became known as "the Chairman's flight," and Samson flew it about 27 times through 2013.
The money-losing flight, which was canceled after he resigned, lost approximately $945,000 before it was grounded, officials said.
Also charged in the case was former state transportation commissioner Jamie Fox, who was then serving as a lobbyist for United and has since died.
United was not criminally charged in the case, but agreed to pay a fine of $2.25 million and pledged to institute "substantial reforms" to its compliance program.
Samson's attorneys said what he did was wrong and he accepted full responsibility for his conduct, but added that his actions did not financially harm the public or Port Authority and that he "never permitted himself to become beholden to United in any way."
Among those writing letters in support of Samson were former state attorneys general John Hoffman, Peter Harvey and Jeffrey Chiesa, who was a law partner.
McGreevey, who had appointed Samson as his attorney general, said the circumstances in the case did not define the totality of his character.
"As someone who has wrestled with my own defects of character, I would beseech the court to permit David to know his better angels through service to the 'least of these,'" said the former governor.
Former U.S. attorney and retired federal Judge Herbert Stern said Samson had "disgraced himself by an uncharacteristic act, and thereby risked obscuring the considerable good he did for the preceding fifty years." But he called him "an appropriate person to receive mercy from this court and not be incarcerated at this, the last unhappy stage of his life."
Samson's wife, Joanna, in her own letter, also asked the court to show mercy.
"David Samson is not a bad man who the government has finally caught on a lesser offense," she wrote. "On the contrary, David Samson is an extraordinarily good man who made a tragic mistake in judgment late in life."
Ted Sherman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TedShermanSL. Facebook: @TedSherman.reporter. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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