Neil Volz had one of the most powerful jobs in Washington as chief of staff to Congressman Bob Ney. He then joined Jack Abramoff as a lobbyist and was a part of the corruption scandal involving illegal payments and gifts to members of Congress. He pled guilty and received a reduced sentence of probation because of his assistance to prosecutors. I spoke to him about the new documentary, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.”
Why did you decide to cooperate with the making of this film?
I’m the son of a teacher, brother of a history teacher, and I believe in this concept of learning from mistakes and talking it through. I met with [director] Alex [Gibney] and saw some of his movies. With loud trumpets — I’m responsible for my behavior, what I did. That is fundamental. I don’t move off of that. For me not to get involved with Abramoff would have been as simple as me making different choices. The reaction to it, having said that, my Rolodex went from about 5000 people to about 15. There was a psychological process I was going through. Do you want to be this bitter person who doesn’t trust anyone and doesn’t move forward? Or do you want to, as a friend of mine says, live naively, think, “I’m going to meet my next best friend today.” The downside is, you’re probably going to get burned along the way. It was a little bit of a leap of faith. These guys seemed to be earnestly seeking the story behind the story, to add some depth to a complex situation. So it was therapeutic to sit down and shoot straight with them.
Did it help you understand it better, too?
Absolutely. Bob and I had different situations. He was in the public eye. I was in my cave. I had to come to grips with what I’d done, how to move forward, the shame of dragging my family through the scandal. That’s the hardest part. I had a special status there. My stupidity reverberated in the echo chamber back home and that hurt so much more than just about anything. But my family was unbelievably supportive of me.
You worked on both sides of this mess, on Capitol Hill and for Abramoff, which makes you unique in this story.
I look back on who I was. It was the ultimate rationalization in some respects. I was working so hard for the Congressman — now, the more power he got, the more I got, so I was also working for me. And that was clouding out so much of the rest of my life. My relationships weren’t as strong as I would like them to be. I thought the jump to Abramoff’s team was a great opportunity to make money, get more influence, get more powerful, and also get some normalcy. That was the ultimate perversion because it was, “You need to go out with the Congressmen and these guys.” I rationalized myself all the way down the slippery slope.
I didn’t want to get caught but I definitely felt that certain corners were acceptable to cut. Now, I see that little things are big things. The slippery slope is real and breaking the gift ban becomes the gateway drug to taking the trips — the real corruption occurs with quality of life enhancements, the trips, the tickets, sitting across the room, “I’m the public servant and you’re my potential future employer.” There’s this institutionalized loop.
I’m a self-described right wing nut job but I worry about the aggressive nature of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision [finding most campaign contribution restrictions on corporations illegal]. What does that mean for social policy, environmental regulations, all these things that become upended?
I’m a big fan of people who are actively engaged in politics, on either side.
What are you doing now?
I’ve been working in the non-profit community for the past couple of years. I worked for the United States Veteran’s Initiative. I worked with homeless veterans. I couldn’t get a job. I couldn’t get some volunteer positions. But the US Vets had a position open and I said, “That sounds perfect.” I wanted to go from the gray to purely doing some good. I don’t want to worry about where my feet are. Helping homeless vets? They put the uniform on and are now having a hard time? I’ll be there like clockwork. I did some case management, conversations on everything from employment, financial management, addiction issues. I built a lot of camaraderie with the vets, focus on what I can do, not what I can’t. One of the best moments I had was when one of the vets said, “If you didn’t have that money, you’d be sitting in jail right now.” I just blurted out, “That’s probably true. But if I didn’t have such desire for money, I wouldn’t have gotten into trouble in the first place. The money I made, I gave to my attorneys to defend me.”
It would have been better if I wasn’t so greedy in the first place.
My wife and I got divorced. I moved to South Florida where I didn’t know a soul. I thought, “Radical change is good. Especially for someone like me, not normally one to embrace change.” I got a job managing a motel. Going from DC where there isn’t anyone who doesn’t know my baggage and my dirty laundry to working on the basics, create honest relationships, be who it is you want to be, build one step at a time. Now I’m working as a volunteer with Falling Upstairs, improving the delivery of social services.
Was there some advice that was particularly helpful to you?
I met with Michael Deaver [former Reagan aide who went to jail]. He said, “One, you’re going to get through this. What you’ve got to remember is get right with the facts and stay with the facts.” I’m a practical person and that was very practical advice. I can be a classic over-thinker, I rationalized my way through so many things, but that means, get your yeses right and your noes right, words matter, and get right with the facts. I’ve tried to live that.