For a felon, former lobbyist Jack Abramoff has it pretty good: a book deal, a WND column, regular appearances on cable news and a spot judging TPM’s Golden Dukes. But it turns out the path to prosperity is a lot of tougher for the lower-ranking individuals caught up in the scandal defined by Abramoff’s name.
Take Neil Volz. He was chief-of-staff to former Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) and went to work with Abramoff at Greenburg Traurig LLP in 2002. He reached a plea deal with the Justice Department and pleaded guilty in 2006 and testified against fellow Abramoff associate Kevin Ring and former Bush administration official David Safavian.
Volz is now living in Florida, working as a janitor, and just self-published a book titled “Into the Sun” about his experience in Washington.
“Moving the Florida and working as a janitor were both very helpful to me in terms of trying to dig in and put out a product I could be proud of,” Volz told TPM in a phone interview Wednesday.
Having been a program manager at a homeless shelter, Volz moved down to Florida, where he didn’t know anybody. He said he followed the guidance the program he worked with gave to homeless individuals.
“We had this attitude, you’ve got to get a job and worry about your career later,” Volz said. “When I moved down here, I told myself, okay why don’t you just follow the same instructions.”
Volz said he was relatively quickly able to get two job offers: one from a hotel and another for a retail place on the beach. One of them knew about Volz’s past because of a question on their application, the other didn’t ask. He took the retail job, met his fiance, took a non-profit job and started helping a friend with a business he ran cleaning pools and restaurants. When the friend moved to South Carolina, Volz took over some of his accounts.
“It really was right when I was getting into my flow with the book and it worked out great. I could clean at night, write during the day and any sort of barriers or hang ups or questions that I would have when I was writing — ironically, sweeping the floor or pushing the mop was really helpful in terms of being introspective,” Volz said. “I just stuck with it thinking that you know when the book is out, I’ll transition to whatever is next. That’s sort of where I’m at in my life now.”
Volz says his book takes a different approach than Abramoff’s. “This is not your typical Washington book, it’s not about partisan gains, it’s about relationships,” Volz said.
“I definitely think I come from the perspective that the lessons I learned were about how I failed in my relationships and I think any lessons that pertain to our government come from the framework that I think the relationship between the voters and our elected officials is broken,” Volz said.
“I was greedy, selfish and power-hungry, but my cardinal sin was that I grew too comfortable with lying to people. I think if you peel back all the different layers of this scandal to its core, you’ll find a culture of dishonesty rather than a myriad of different statutes that were danced around or broken. It gets complicated when you start talking about these different statutes and that’s how if should be,” Volz said.
“I want to be honest to you, I want to be honest to anybody who is interested in talked to me about it, so I can’t say that, you know, changing the constitution is a good idea when the Abramoff scandal could have been stopped if Jack Abramoff, Neil Volz, Bob Ney and others simply behaved differently,” Volz said. “For me, that’s a bit of a leap.”
Instead of “pounding our head on the wall for the next 20 years trying to cut off the money supply in a Constitutional way,” Volz believes it would be more effective to educate people who have less of a voice about how to organize themselves.
“I get it, a lot of the time it’s about do you support this, don’t you support this. If people want to pass term limits, cool. But I don’t necessarily see that as the solution,” Volz said.
“I think we need to focus more on changing the culture than changing the law with the Constitution,” Volz told TPM. “Buying access is a lynchpin of our system. I’m not advocating getting rid of that, I’m not suggesting that it’s fair, I’m not being a cheerleader for it, but I do think it’s important for the public to understand how that works. Yet we live in a political culture where you couldn’t find a member of Congress to admit the obvious.”
“Imagine a congressman going to a town hall meeting and admitting that for $5,000 somebody could have dinner with him, but anybody who really studies the system know that’s exactly how it works,” Volz said. “So for me, it’s more about the process and culture involved — let’s talk about that. What’s the harm in having that conversation as opposed to only having a conversation that’s built around the sensational stories or people who fail like me and then saying that’s how things really work.”
“I have a hard time with the concept of ‘everybody was doing it.’ I can’t tell you in good faith ‘everybody was doing it and I was just a victim of my environment.’ That’s just not what happened, you know? And yet a lot of people would enjoy hearing me say that, and it would be a way for me, you know — I’m going to spend the rest of my life getting my integrity back — and that would be a shortcut. But that isn’t the way it happened as I remember,” Volz said.
That approach certainly puts him at odds with Abramoff, who Volz said he reached out to after Abramoff’s book came out.
“I respect Jack’s point of view and like that he’s out there driving this debate, but we do have differences. It comes from our different experiences too. I’ve been in the district, the congressman’s district day-after-day-after-day — on the campaign trail, during August recess — and I know what it’s like to go to a high school football team’s championship award dinner and to watch the congressman get a free sweatshirt. And the idea somehow that’s the same thing as giving somebody a free trip to Scotland isn’t even worth talking about,” Volz said.
“So I think Jack has staked out a position that allows him to drive this debate, and for me, I’m taking it from a different perspective,” Volz said. “My hope is that telling what happened can help people learn and that learning can help people be different citizens.”
“The life I’m leading now is built upon the fundamental premise that what I did was wrong and illegal,” Volz said.