Ally of New Jersey Governor Christie avoids jail for airline scheme

A former New Jersey state attorney general and a close confidant of Governor Chris Christie avoided prison on Monday for pressuring United Airlines into operating a flight to an airport near his vacation home, a case that grew out of the "Bridgegate" investigation.

David Samson, 77, a former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, could have been sentenced to as much as two years in prison after pleading guilty to using his position to coerce United into restarting a money-losing nonstop route between Newark, New Jersey, and Columbia, South Carolina.

The flight, which Samson privately referred to as the "chairman's flight," made it easier for him to get to a summer home he owned in South Carolina, according to prosecutors.

U.S. District Judge Jose Linares in Newark ordered Samson to serve one year of home confinement and pay a $100,000 fine, after Samson's lawyers argued he should not be sent to prison because of his poor health.

United previously agreed to pay more than $4.6 million to settle related criminal and civil investigations without admitting wrongdoing. The scandal led to the resignation of United Continental Holdings Inc Chief Executive Jeff Smisek and two other senior executives, but no employees were charged.

The case emerged from the investigation into the shutdown of access lanes at the George Washington Bridge in September 2013. Fallout from the so-called Bridgegate scandal damaged Christie's once-promising political career.

Two former Christie aides were convicted of orchestrating the closures to create massive traffic jams as political payback for a local mayor who declined to endorse the governor's 2013 reelection bid.

The Republican governor, who has not been charged, denied any knowledge of the scheme, but the aides testified that he was aware of the lane closures at the time they occurred.

Samson was not charged in the Bridgegate case. But his name came up at trial as one of several officials who appeared aware of the lane closure plot as it unfolded.

The bi-state Port Authority oversees the bridge, which spans the Hudson River between Manhattan and Fort Lee, New Jersey, as well as all three major New York-area airports.

In the airline case, Samson was accused of threatening to block United's plans for a new hangar at Newark Liberty International Airport unless United operated the flight to South Carolina.

A consultant who was facing charges in the scheme for allegedly acting as a middleman, former state transportation commissioner Jamie Fox, died in February.

(Editing by Frank McGurty and Phil Berlowitz and Tom Brown)