The Port Authority kept secret four meetings between Gov. Chris Christie’s former top staffer at the bi-state agency and representatives of United Airlines when it initially made his calendars public, WNYC has learned.
The hidden meetings were between then-Port Authority Deputy Director Bill Baroni and Jeff Smisek, who at the time was CEO of United Airlines, and Jamie Fox, a former United lobbyist and the current Christie transportation commissioner. They were redacted from documents requested by The New York Times in December 2013 and posted on the Port Authority website.
WNYC only learned of the redacted meetings because of a subsequent freedom of information request we filed 14 months later under a new regime at the Port Authority. That request asked specifically for documentation of meetings and communications with United Airlines.
Federal prosecutors are investigating whether United Airlines offered a special flight route for then-Port Authority Chairman David Samson in exchange for tens of millions of dollars a year in flight-fee reductions.
Bloomberg News has reported that the first meeting, a dinner at the Manhattan restaurant Novita, was the site of Samson’s initial request for the flight route. Smisek, Samson, Baroni, Fox, and several United executives dined together in September, 2011. A January 2013 meeting with Smisek and two meetings with Fox in the spring of 2013 were also redacted from Baroni's calendar in the early release.
One meeting with Smisek and one with Fox, concerning the renovation of the Harrison PATH station, remained on those documents.
The other meetings were removed long before federal prosecutors began subpoenaing records of the so-called “chairman’s flight,” to Columbia, S.C., near Samson’s weekend home in Aiken, S.C. Two current or former federal prosecutors, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to discuss this case, said if the entries were deliberately hidden, “it's evidence of guilt.”
“Concealment is inconsistent with an innocent frame of mind,” said one prosecutor.
It’s unclear who removed the meetings from the calendars. The Port Authority declined to say, citing the investigations. Four high-level current and former Port Authority employees said that typically, even though Baroni had resigned, his lawyer would have been given the opportunity to review the documents and claim exemptions before public release. At the time of the document request, Samson, the focus of the United inquiry, was still Chair of the Port Authority.
Baroni’s lawyer at the time no longer represents his former client. Baroni’s new lawyer, Michael Baldassare, did not comment in response to inquiries.
Several key meetings were also missing from Samson’s public calendars, including the Italian dinner with Jeff Smisek and the two United Airlines executives who resigned as a result of the investigations. A meeting between Samson, Smisek and Christie in August 2013 is also missing from Samson’s calendar.
Other documents released under Freedom of Information requests suggest Samson did much of his business as Port Authority chair using an email system from his private law firm, then known as Wolff & Samson.
Samson’s spokeswoman, Karen Kessler, declined to comment.
The redacted calendars included a good deal of information that appeared to be personal: entries for weekend brunches with friends, a dinner with an Irish writer and a party for Edie Windsor, who had just won a landmark gay marriage case in June 2013.
But the page with the calendar entry for the Novita dinner is simply blank, and the other meetings — one with Smisek and two with Fox — appear on Baroni's schedule as redactions under “exemption one” of the Port Authority freedom of information code, which at the time included covered court-ordered non-disclosures, invasions of privacy, and material protected because it’s under investigation.
But a source familiar with Fox’s schedule said the two meetings were public business. The meetings, at L’Express, a Lyonnais restaurant, and at the Port Authority, had to do with a different client, Westfield, which runs retail at the World Trade Center, the source said. "We have no idea why they would do that," said Robert Fettweiss, Fox's attorney, in an emailed statement. "They should have disclosed it. But we have no way to explain the inept decisions they made."
Fettweiss added: “Jamie represented his clients, and represented them well and ethically, so yes, he met with officials there to make the case for his various clients. That was his job. Meetings between government entities and the companies they work with occur every single day."
The second meeting with Fox took place during the same week as a United Airlines fund raiser for Christie’s re-election campaign, an unprecedented event for the airline. Just two months later, the lobbying to lower the flight fees began in earnest, according to emails, letters and court documents obtained by WNYC.
About two months after the campaign fund raiser, Christie, Smisek and Samson met in Trenton. Then, for the next two months, United senior vice president Nene Foxhall, repeatedly called, met with and wrote Baroni. On Nov. 13, 2013, Foxhall wrote an email thanking the Port Authority for agreeing to lower the flight fees.
The next day, Nov. 14, Baroni, Christie and Smisek all converged on Newark airport to announce United flights to Atlantic City, a top Christie political priority. That event was also missing from Baroni and Samson’s calendars.
The deal to lower flight fees was never consummated. Baroni and Samson resigned amid the Bridgegate investigation. With new scrutiny focused on the agency, the deal fell apart.
Three days after Samson left the Port Authority, United canceled the direct route to Columbia, S.C. It also canceled its flights to Atlantic City, less than a year after they were announced.