NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wants the bistate agency that controls the state's airports to reject any efforts to launch flight service between Newark and Cuba until a woman convicted of killing a state trooper is returned to the United States.
The Republican governor, who is running for president, sent a letter Tuesday to Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman John Degnan and urged the authority to reject any regular flight routes between Newark Liberty International Airport and the island nation until Joanne Chesimard is extradited to the U.S.
"It is unacceptable to me as Governor to have any flights between New Jersey and Cuba until and unless convicted cop-killer and escaped fugitive Joanne Chesimard is returned to New Jersey to face justice," Christie wrote in the letter obtained by The Associated Press.
"I will not tolerate rewarding the Cuban government for continuing to harbor a fugitive," he said.
Chesimard was convicted in 1977 in the death of Trooper Werner Foerster during a gunfight after being stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973; she was sentenced to life in prison but escaped and made her way to Cuba, where Fidel Castro granted her asylum and she has been living under the name Assata Shakur.
Chicago-based United Airlines has expressed interest in launching flight service from Newark to Cuba, as the U.S. continues to loosen travel restrictions as part of an effort to normalize relations between the two nations.
United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said that the airline intends to request the flights once an agreement is reached between the two nations under which airlines can apply to begin commercial air service. Asked about Christie's letter, Johnson said, "We remain very interested in serving Cuba as soon as we are able to do so, and believe United's service would benefit the airport and the region."
Degnan said in a statement that he would begin an "immediate review" of the proposed route.
"I understand Gov. Christie's strongly expressed concerns and will commence an immediate review of the agency's role in the proposed flight between Newark and Cuba," he said. "I expect that review will be completed in a matter of days."
Christie, whose campaign has had trouble gaining traction in a crowded field, has been a vocal critic of improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba, especially the Obama administration's decision to formally remove Cuba from a U.S. terrorism blacklist.
Meanwhile, United's relationship with the Port Authority has come under scrutiny from federal investigators amid allegations that the airline resumed a money-losing flight from Newark to South Carolina, near where the Port Authority's former chairman had a vacation home, at 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.
The flights were discontinued several days after Port Authority chairman David Samson stepped down in late March 2014.