The Perks of Public Service: Protecting Their Own?

Former New Jersey Attorney General David Samson got a no-prison sentence for his shocking abuses of power as Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Samson, who successfully pressured United Airlines executives to schedule regular (and unprofitable) flights between Newark and Columbia, SC, was appointed by Governor Chris Christie in 2011.

And the prosecutors? They’re from the same U.S. Attorney’s Office which Christie ran. In some other public corruption investigations, prosecutions are run through non-conflicted offices (like in Manhattan or Philadelphia) or even “Main Justice” which is Washington DC.

Why wasn’t that done here? That becomes relevant if for no other reason than the fact Samson got a deal from prosecutors, apparently without being required to cooperate against co-defendants or in other investigations.

Like Bridgegate.

Like against his subordinates at the Port Authority. Subordinates like David Wildstein and Bill Baroni.

Or against the man to whom several trails seemed to lead: Chris Christie.

Samson’s sentencing judge was Jose Linares. This was the same judge for several Bid Rig III defendants. Bid Rig, it turns out, was the public corruption investigation likely begun during Christie’s tenure as U.S. Attorney and which yielded arrests in July 2009. That was during the homestretch of the campaign for Governor, that year featuring Christie running against Jon Corzine.

So Samson gets no jail time — although he also gets one year of house arrest, nearly two years’ worth of community service and a $100,000 fine.

But it seems that Bid Rig defendants — and many others — who did far less, or arguably nothing at all, got much harsher treatment.

In an insular political world such as New Jersey’s, and a largely insular legal community where success often requires connections with elected and appointed leaders who decide on contracts, is it fair to at least wonder if Samson’s kid-gloves sentence shows the clout of the insiders in New Jersey’s political and legal industries?

Federal District Judge Linares also must be questioned. He sentenced some Bid Rig defendants, of nearly the same age as Samson, to years in prison. They didn’t have the clout, or the presumably connected friends, as Samson.

It seems Chris Christie is the dividing line here. If you’re his enemy, you get harsh treatment.

But if you’re his buddy and especially if you’re Samson and you don’t cooperate with investigations like Bridgegate, you get rewarded, right?

While we take no pleasure in anyone’s fall from grace, even if earned, the aura of special treatment is perceived. And perception is a problem when it goes to the heart of public confidence in a fair and blind justice system.

While people should never be prosecuted for who they are and what they’ve achieved, the flip side is that we expect connections to not play a role in leniency.

David Samson enjoyed his Chairman’s Flight while a public servant. It seems the special treatment had one more flight to make and it took off today from a Newark courtroom.

Judge Linares also sentenced another former Port Authority chairman to a lenient punishment: Charles Kushner. And the prosecutor: Chris Christie.