The Bridgegate scandal, dormant for months, sprung back
to life with a vengeance Tuesday — a day before the second anniversary of
the bridge lane closures — for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and
his struggling presidential campaign. United Airlines announced that its chief
executive officer had stepped down, a casualty of the airline and federal
prosecutors’ inquiries into the relationship between the company’s executives
and the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New
Jersey, the agency that runs Newark Liberty International Airport.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office inquiry sprung from the George
Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, where Christie loyalists have been
accused of causing massive traffic jams in Fort Lee in the fall of 2013 in a
bid to exact revenge on a political foe of Christie’s. The lane closures
on Sept. 9, 2013, kicked off a week of traffic jams.
Tuesday’s announcement of the departure of CEO Jeff
Smisek and two other executives makes plain that the long-simmering
scandal will continue to dog Christie, a Republican, and his presidential
ambitions, which have already been diminished by the controversy, according to
a series of opinion polls.
Two former Christie loyalists, Bill Baroni and Bridget
Anne Kelly, are scheduled to be tried in the fall on Bridgegate-related
charges. David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official and high-school
classmate of Christie, pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy charges for his role
in the lane closures.
The fall of United’s CEO is the latest sign that prosecutors
may be building a case in their spinoff investigation of David Samson, the
influential lawyer who chaired Christie’s gubernatorial transition and later
the Port Authority. Prosecutors have been examining various aspects of
United’s operations at Newark Airport and Atlantic City International
Airport during Samson’s tenure, including the restoration of a
twice-weekly flight between Newark and an airport in Columbia, S.C., close
to Samson’s vacation home. The route was canceled days after Samson left the
authority in 2014.
In April, Samson retired from his longtime law firm, which
took the unusual step of changing its name. Samson has denied wrongdoing amid
questions about possible conflicts of interest in his Port Authority votes. In
addition to Smisek's departure, United Continental Holdings Inc. announced
Tuesday that executive vice president Nene Foxhall and senior vice president
Mark Anderson were stepping down.
In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange
Commission, United disclosed that Smisek will receive a $4.875 million
separation payment and be eligible for a pro-rated bonus. He also will
receive health insurance until he is eligible for Medicare,
get to keep his company car and maintain flight benefits and parking
privileges for the rest of his life.
In pleading guilty, Wildstein admitted that he, Baroni and
Kelly conspired to close bridge access lanes in Fort Lee, during the busy first
week of school, to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for
refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election. Christie has denied any wrongdoing.
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