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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey lawmakers shined a spotlight Thursday on possible corruption at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that touches a former agency executive who is also an ally of White House contender Gov. Chris Christie.
Legislators convened the state Senate oversight panel to vet an overhaul measure passed by New York's Legislature that creates a rotating chairmanship and other changes.
It's the latest in a long-running effort to reform the agency that oversees airports, bridges and tunnels in the New York region and has about an $8 billion budget.
On Tuesday, United Airlines CEO Jeffrey Smisek and two other top executives abruptly resigned amid a federal investigation into the possible trading of favors at Newark's airport between the airline and David Samson, the Christie-appointed former head of the Port Authority.
When Samson was in charge at the Port Authority, United resumed direct flights to the South Carolina airport near his vacation home. Around the same time, United was pressing for concessions from the agency, including a new hangar at the Newark airport, rent reductions and a commuter rail-line extension that would connect the airport directly to lower Manhattan.
If stricter legislative review were in place — a component of Democratic legislation under consideration — Samson's alleged behavior might have been prevented, according to state Sen. Bob Gordon, who chairs the oversight panel.
"I don't think we would have seen a 'Chairman's Flight' to Columbia, South Carolina, take place, and there would have been enough public scrutiny to provide a check against this," Gordon said. "I really think it's the most important part of the legislation."
No one has been charged in the case, and a spokeswoman for Samson on Wednesday said only that Smisek's resignation "is a United Airlines matter."
The Port Authority supports recommendations from Christie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo that are incorporated in the New York legislation, including a recommitment to the agency's transportation mission, spokesman Steve Coleman said. Coleman declined to comment on whether pending New Jersey legislation would prevent possible corruption.
Not all legislators agree with Gordon's point about oversight.
Lawmakers already have oversight powers, including the Senate's ability to confirm appointees and pass legislation, said Republican state Sen. Joe Kyrillos.
The federal investigation involving Samson branched off the so-called Bridgegate case, a scandal that has cast a shadow over Christie's White House hopes.
Three Christie allies — his former deputy chief of staff and two former top executives at the Port Authority — were charged last spring with closing lanes and engineering all-out gridlock at the foot of the nation's busiest bridge in September 2013 to exact revenge on a Democratic mayor who declined to endorse Christie's re-election bid. Christie has denied any knowledge of the plot.
Federal and state authorities expanded the bridge investigation to examine possible wrongdoing in the handling of billions of dollars in public works projects undertaken by the Port Authority.
Christie said Wednesday that Samson is his friend and it's important not to jump to any conclusions based on news reports.
The news has also prompted Christie to defend his judgment. On Wednesday he said he fired staffers who failed to meet his standards.
"When we found out about the problems that happened there, we acted immediately and terminated people we thought their conduct was in question and then moved on," Christie said. "And that's what leaders are really supposed to do."
Samson headed Christie's gubernatorial transition team and has long been a key adviser. He resigned in 2014 after the Port Authority was implicated in the bridge scandal.
New Jersey and New York have to pass the same measures to enact reforms. New York passed a bill with support from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Christie after the governors vetoed unanimously passed legislation in December.
But New Jersey's Democratic-led Legislature has failed to move on it.