Shawn Boburg wrote a fascinating story in the Record yesterday alleging that a state agency failed to collect $104,000 United Airlines owed New Jersey after United cancelled an underperforming route to Atlantic City before the one-year minimum the airline had agreed to when it accepted incentives.
The idea is that the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which owns Atlantic City International Airport, spent taxpayer money marketing the routes and encouraging travelers to fly to A.C. That money was at least partially wasted when United, unable to fill its planes, pulled the plug on the routes before fulfilling its commitment to serve the struggling city for at least a year.
The story, some of which was also reported in different versions by the Associated Press, suggested that Jamie Fox, Chris Christie’s transportation chief and the chairman of the South Jersey Transportation Authority that allegedly let United off the hook, was involved in the decision. That would create at least an uncomfortable appearance because Fox was United’s lobbyist until last September and served as the main point of contact between Christie and United. According to the Record, Fox attended a meeting shortly after leaving United in Sept 2014 to assume his current job. On Nov 9, 2014, Fox and his fellow SJTA Board members at least discussed the incentive fees United was supposed to pay. According to the Record, it is unclear whether that meeting produced a decision on the matter.
The story draws a link between the Atlantic City situation with United and the scandal that has erupted over Christie mentor David Samson, who stands accused of using his influence as Chairman of the Port Authority to pressure or persuade United to maintain a different little-used airline that serviced his vacation home in South Carolina. That scandal has already claimed the job of CEO Jeff Smisek and two other United executives. Prosecutors are said to be looking into whether the arrangement violated any laws. Either way, the idea that two underused routes by United both have resulted in controversy for New Jersey political figures cannot be ignored.
One small but intriguing angle that went unmentioned in Boburg’s excellent story is that prior to Samson’s retirement, Samson’s law firm, Wolff and Samson, was the Bond Counsel to the SJTA. When the contract was renewed in August 2014, the authority also approved the firm Parker McKay as the conflict counsel. That meant that if Samson had a conflict, Parker McKay would take Wolf and Samson’s place on that issue. It’s a lucrative gig, all the moreso considering the well-connected former chair’s many conflicts.
Parker McKay’s managing partner is Phil Norcross, who is the brother of South Jersey Svengali George Norcross and Congressman Donald Norcross (D-1). Phil Norcross is also a partner in a lobbying firm, Optimus Partners, with many ties to the Christie administration.
One final note of interest: In 2013, at Christie’s request, the Port Authority entered into an agreement to operate the beleaguered Atlantic City airport. Pretty cozy.