(Notice the product placement!)
And I like “Frasier’s” closing music (sung by Kelsey Grammer) better than the intro.
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.
Our troops take a well-deserved break to create a salute to Lady GaGa and her video for “Telephone.”
And NPR takes a moment to salute them both.
I love the way both videos have such whole-hearted enthusiasm and good humor. And, as always, I love seeing how art inspires us to affectionate parody and even, sometimes, some more art.
As print media crumbles and broadcast and cable media splinters, documentaries have become one of the most thorough and dependable formats for delivering long-form journalism. From the acid (in both metaphorical senses of the word)-tinged advocacy of Michael Moore and his imitators to the more straightforward, even-handed work of Irena Salina and Joe Berlinger, see-it-now, show-it-don’t-tell-it films, more widely available than ever before online and through Netflix, literally bring these stories home. Alex Gibney, whose brilliant work on “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side” (about interrogation abuses in Iran), once again uses one disaster to illuminate more fundamental structural flaws with “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.”
The Jack Abramoff story is epic, even operatic, a classic story of the rise and fall of an ambitious man with a tragic flaw. He was an idealistic young man who became first corrupted and then a corrupter. It has the satisfying arc of a feature film (and is set to be one, with Kevin Spacey as Abramoff), but it is far more than a rise-and-fall or even a catch-the-crook film. It is entertaining but it is also a sober and sobering depiction that focuses less on the failures of the individuals than the failures of the system that did more than let it happen. This film argues that corruption is inevitable.
Abramoff was a college Republican whose passion and ability to attract supporters — political and financial — quickly brought him to the attention of party leaders. At some point, he surrendered principle to greed. He took more than $25 million in lobbying fees. And then what he didn’t keep he paid out illegally. Gibney does an excellent job of making a complicated story both clear and engrossing. He is even-handed, allowing participants like former Congressman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who pled guilty to corruption charges and spent 17 months in prison, and Neil Volz, his former chief of staff, to tell their own stories.
The stories are shocking. I don’t know which is worse, how much money was taken from the unsuspecting clients, mostly Indian tribes, or how little it took to get crucial support from key members of Congress. A golf outing, a free dinner, a $25,000 contribution could mean hundreds of millions of dollars from casino revenue, especially if the competition could be shut out. Sweatshops on Saipan were characterized as free enterprise. Favors were traded. Abramoff dubbed appropriations committee the called “the favor factory” and he was very good at finding ever more pockets to stuff favors in. He was also very good at creating more pockets of his own for receiving money. Ultimately, his office set up a phony think tank to receive contributions in excess of the money given to them for lobbying. It was run by a lifeguard out of a house on the beach. Needless to say, no thinking went on.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, invalidating much of John McCain’s campaign finance reforms and making it possible for unlimited corporate lobbying and other political expenditures — much of it undisclosed — makes this film even more timely and even more terrifying. Jack Abramoff will get out of prison at the end of this year and come back to a world filled with new opportunities.