25 June 2019

United CEO Departs Amid Continuing Investigation

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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.

Click here to access the full article on USA Today.

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