Mel Evans, ASSOCIATED PRESS
A United Airlines passenger plane lands Sept. 9, 2015, at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J.
United Airlines announced Thursday it would pay a $2.25 million fine, but avoid criminal prosecution, for a flight at the heart of a political scandal that cost the carrier’s former CEO Jeff Smisek his job.
The case grew out of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s investigation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Newark airport.
One aspect of the case questioned whether United provided a money-losing flight twice a week from Newark to Columbia, S.C., from 2011 through 2014 for the former port chairman David Samson.
The flights came at a time when United was negotiating a lease for a $25 million hangar at Newark, which is a hub for the airline, and the relocation of a taxiway for $10 million, according to Fishman’s 20-page summary of facts from the investigation released Thursday.
Port authority discussion of United’s lease was postponed in 2011 until the carrier began the South Carolina flight, according to Fishman. “As United’s analysis had predicted, United’s operation of the Newark/Columbia route was not profitable and lost money,” he said.
Samson pleaded guilty Thursday to bribery for using his official authority to pressure United to institute the nonstop flight for his personal benefit.
“This kind of case shakes public confidence in our institutions of government when people who are so accomplished, and who have occupied so many positions of public trust, misuse their authority to get something for themselves,” Fishman said.
“It’s a betrayal of our trust and what we have the right to expect from those in public life and it makes the job of every honest public employee just that much harder,” he added.
Samson flew the route nicknamed the “chairman’s flight” or “Samson Air” 27 times from October 2012 through January 2014. Prosecutors agreed to pursue a maximum sentence of two years, instead of the 10 years he originally faced, and a $250,000 fine.
“This case should serve as a strong wake-up call and warning to those public servants at all levels, who might consider abusing their official positions for their personal benefit, or the benefit of others,” said Port Authority Inspector General Michael Nestor, who helped investigate the case.
United CEO Smisek undone by N.J. corruption investigation
United provided extensive, timely and thorough cooperation in the investigation, Fishman said. United agreed to pay the fine and enhance its anti-bribery and anti-corruption training and standards, Fishman said in announcing he wouldn’t prosecute the airline.
United’s board abruptly forced out Smisek in September after an internal company investigation that paralleled the federal probe.
Oscar Munoz, a former railroad executive who was chosen to succeed Smisek, said United would try to earn and keep the trust of workers, customers, shareholders and communities.
“We will continue to act with the utmost integrity in everything we do, ensuring that we are always conducting business ethically and with the best interests of all of our stakeholders in mind,” Munoz said.