Gov. Chris Christie took another hit to his presidential aspirations yesterday, spending the day on the defensive after three high-level United Airlines executives, including the chairman and CEO, resigned due to allegations related to the Bridgegate probe.
The media continued to question Christie about his leadership capabilities and character judgment after United CEO Jeff Smisek and two top lieutenants resigned as a result of an internal United investigation into the possibility that the airline paid off Port Authority Chairman David Samson with a special money-losing flight to South Carolina in hopes of getting a good deal from the authority for United.
Samson was one of Christie’s closest advisors and his chief appointee to the bistate commission, which runs Newark Liberty International Airport as well as most New York and New Jersey interstate infrastructure.
Samson’s activities are part of a probe being conducted by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who was alerted to possible malfeasance during his investigation of Bridgegate, the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, in which Christie’s staff and Port Authority appointees are accused of creating a massive traffic jam by closing bridge lanes to the public due to a political vendetta against the Fort Lee mayor.
When asked about new developments during his radio and cable-television interviews, Christie said he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing and cannot be expected to know what all his appointees are doing. A special flight, known as the “chairman’s flight” was instituted between Newark Liberty International and Columbia, SC, leaving Thursday nights and returning Monday mornings. The flight was cancelled by United three days after Samson resigned from the Port Authority due to Bridgegate allegations.
Christie told NJ 101.5 FM radio host Eric Scott last night that he should be held accountable for the actions of those he’s put into positions of power, but added “you cannot judge all the time how people are going to conduct themselves in certain circumstances.”
“If everyone is held to a 100 percent standard, everybody will fail,” Christie said. “No one is perfect in their judgments.”
Earlier in the day, when pressed by CNN host Jake Tapper, Christie said thousands of people work for his administration and if someone crosses legal or ethical lines “they’re fired, and that’s the way it works.” . The Record of Woodland Park published a story earlier this year that federal investigators had issued subpoenas to Port Authority officials, expanding their probe into Samson, having learned of the special flight. The investigation, according to the newspaper, is focused on whether the twice-weekly flight could have been established to entice Samson to act favorably on issues important to United, including certain fees, airport projects and a direct Port Authority PATH train link from Wall Street to Newark airport.
Christie told Scott during the radio show Wednesday night that he’s unsure whether Samson crossed a line, and he cautioned against fully accepting what’s coming across now in news reports. He also said he’s no longer in close contact with Samson, the chairman of his 2009 gubernatorial transition team, because Samson has moved out-of-state.
“David is friend,” Christie added. “I find all of this hard to believe. David’s a friend of mine.”
The resignations announced by United Airlines come exactly two years after several of the local lanes accessing the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee were closed for several days in September 2013 in an alleged plot to punish the borough’s Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie’s reelection campaign that year. The lane-closure scheme, federal prosecutors have said was carried out by two other former top Port Authority officials with ties to Christie and a former high-level member of the governor’s staff in Trenton. All three officials are now facing federal indictments.
The timing of the new developments was not lost yesterday on the state Democratic Party, which sent out a Bridgegate-themed fund-raising email to supporters.
“Today marks the two-year anniversary of Bridgegate, and we’re still dealing with the fallout,” the email said. Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) also weighed in, saying Christie should end his bid for president and come back to New Jersey to focus on issues like Port Authority reform.
“While the Governor may believe this is a record upon which he can run for President, it is, in truth, a record of shame,” said Wisniewski, who’s played a key role in the legislative probe of Christie’s administration and the Port Authority in the wake of the lane closures.
Lawmakers were scheduled to hold a hearing in Trenton on Thursday on reforms aimed at cleaning up the scandal-tarred Port Authority. The hearing was planned before the United Airlines resignations were announced, but the chairman of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), said they could bring new urgency to the effort to reform a bistate agency with an annual budget larger than many states’.
“I would like to think had some of these reforms been in place it wouldn’t have been so easy for this alleged quid pro quo between United Airlines and the Port Authority to have happened,” Gordon said.
And concerns about whether the proposed PATH expansion to Newark airport came out of sound public planning or preferential dealings between airline and Port Authority executives also need to be addressed, he said, given that bigger priorities for commuters, including much-needed Port Authority Bus Terminal repairs and a new rail tunnel, seem to be further down the list.
“It certainly raises questions in the minds of the public,” Gordon said.
But right now the reform effort has stalled in Trenton as Gordon and other Democrats maintain a measure they’ve put forward is superior to one backed by Republicans. The GOP bill features some elements of the Democrats’ measure and some ideas put forward by a review panel backed by Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
That hybrid bill largely mirrors reform legislation that has already been passed by New York’s legislature. And because it is a bistate agency, any permanent changes must be approved by the Legislatures in both states and signed into law by both governors to take effect.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), the sponsor of the New Jersey version of the hybrid legislation, said he’s ready to make the case during today’s hearing for why his bill is stronger.
And when asked about the concerns brought out by the United Airlines/Samson investigation — namely that the Port Authority’s leadership was susceptible to influence peddling and political pressure that impacted things like capital planning — Kean Jr. said his bill provides a remedy by significantly changing the agency’s management structure.
“The issues about which we’ve read resulted from a bad management structure,” Kean Jr. said. “My piece of legislation is the only one that creates a top-down management structure that’s impervious to outside political influence.”
“My piece of legislation is the only one that creates that efficiency and has the entity focus on transportation as its priority,” he said. But Kean Jr.’s bill does not, as the Democrats have pressed for, allow the Legislatures to compel Port Authority officials to appear before them to justify their actions. To Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) that’s a fundamental need for New Jersey.
“I felt from the very beginning … legislative oversight is the most important aspect of the reform bill,” she said.
Weinberg also stressed that the Democrats’ measure calls for the creation of a New Jersey transportation liaison to ensure the agency keeps its focus on projects that help both states and not just New York.
And she downplayed a concern raised in a recent New York Times editorial that Democrats in New Jersey shouldn’t stand in the way of the bill that has already been passed in New York and seems to have support from both governors.
New York could pass some simple amendments to put its bill back in line with whatever New Jersey comes up with, she said.
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