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Trustee to stay after ethics investigation


By Miles Kruppa     1/20/16 11:42am

Despite his ouster as CEO of United Airlines over a breach of ethics, Jeff Smisek is staying on with the Rice University Board of Trustees.

Smisek resigned from the company last September after a Department of Justice investigation into claims that he bribed the Port Authority of New Jersey and New York. In exchange for expensive improvements to United’s hub in Newark, Smisek reopened an unprofitable flight from Newark to Columbia, SC, a 50-mile drive from the Port Authority chairman’s vacation home.

Smisek’s profile on the Board of Trustees webpage listed his affiliation as “United Airlines” following the ouster. His current profile does not make any reference to United and lists his location as “Houston.”

“Jeff Smisek remains a member of the Rice Board of Trustees,” Rice spokesperson BJ Almond wrote in an email.

The 25-person governing board serves as a check on President David Leebron’s administrative powers and approves the university’s annual budget, among other administrative duties. Smisek was elected to the board of trustees in June 2013. New trustees are elected to four-year terms that may be renewed for up to two six-year terms. 

Smisek’s wife, Diana Strassmann, is director of the Poverty, Justice, and Human Capabilities minor and founder of the Rice-based journal Feminist Economics. 

An article in the Jan. 18 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek detailed United’s woes under Smisek’s leadership following their merger with Continental Airlines. Smisek had previously served as CEO of Continental.

“Three months after being named [Continental’s] CEO, in January 2010, he interrupted merger talks between United and US Airways to propose Continental as a better partner. ‘I didn’t want him to marry the ugly girl,’ Smisek said of Glenn Tilton, then United’s CEO, a comment for which Smisek apologized to US Airways CEO Doug Parker, who now runs American,” the article said.

The article also detailed Smisek’s interactions within United following the merger.

“People who worked closely with Smisek describe him as funny and extremely smart but also reserved and, on occasion, tone-deaf. One former Continental colleague remembers Smisek getting up from the table after a meeting with pilots union representatives and immediately pulling on the leather gloves he used to drive his Porsche,” the article said.

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