December 29, 2011

Former Ney aide says change of culture needed in U.S. capital

Neil Volz believes that Washington won’t change the way it operates without a change of culture.

“It’s hard to defend our system, because it doesn’t always make sense,” he said. “It allows people to do bad things.”

The Ohio native speaks from experience.

He spent more than a decade in Washington, first as press secretary and chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, and then as a lobbyist working for Jack Abramoff.

Volz became a central figure in one of the biggest political corruption scandals of the last decade, pleading guilty in 2007 to conspiring with Abramoff to bribe members of Congress.

Volz admitted to accepting meals and tickets to sporting events from Abramoff when he worked for Ney, and he admitted that he gave Ney and his staff things of value when he worked for Abramoff. Ney, in return, helped Abramoff’s clients.

Volz avoided jail time by cooperating with the Justice Department’s investigation of the case, serving as the chief witness against Ney, who once represented the 18th Congressional District, which includes the Tuscarawas Valley. Ney served 17 months in prison.

“I think we should focus on changing the culture, not the Constitution,” Volz said in a recent interview with The T-R while promoting his new memoir, “Into the Sun,” which he said gives an insider view into the scandal.

“If a handful of people chose to behave differently, the public could see some changes,” he said.

Much of the system that Volz worked under in Washington remains in place today – a system that is based on buying access to leaders, he said. “But you can’t find a leader who will admit that.”

If he could change one thing about the system, Volz said he would alter the congressional redistricting process — which was completed this year in Ohio amid much controversy.

“We should make the redistricting process more about representative government than the spoils of office,” he said. “If we did that, we would have a better pool of people in office.”

Yet he emphasizes that not everyone in Washington is corrupt and thinks it’s dangerous for the American people to distrust anybody in authority. “There are so many great elected officials working to make things better,” he said.

Volz — who grew up in Finneytown, near Cincinnati — got his start working for Ney as an unpaid intern in 1993, when Ney was serving in the state Senate. He moved to Washington in 1994 when Ney was elected to Congress.

“I was an idealist college student when I went to Washington,” he said, but step by step, he saw his idealism replaced by cynicism.

That began during Ney’s re-election campaign in 1996, when Volz realized that it was necessary to cut deals to stay in office. He had also come to enjoy the perks that came with power.

“It became easier for me when I thought, ‘Anything I can do to help Bob Ney is good for the district,’” he said.

When he left Ney’s office in 2002 to became a member of Team Abramoff, Volz became more focused on making money. He thought that if everyone else had been selfish and was cashing in on their connections, he might as well do it too. “We might not have been alone, but by no means was everybody doing it,” he said. “That’s part of the message of my book.”

Following his conviction on bribery charges, Volz found it impossible to find a job in Washington. He works as a janitor in a restaurant in southwest Florida and devotes much of his time to volunteering with the homeless.

“It’s a reminder that life is a roller coaster,” he said. “I got a lot of joy out of public service; that’s what brought me to Washington. But I lost track of that.”

Though he lives a different lifestyle now than during his Washington days, he said he is much happier. “When you’re making lots of money, you can do a lot of things, but it can’t bring contentment.”

During his current tour to promote his new book, he is talking to high school and college students, hoping to undo some of the damage he had done. Last week, he spoke at Martins Ferry High Schoolin Belmont County, urging the kids there to listen to their conscience and pay heed to the “red flag moments in your life.”

Volz said he is deeply sorry for what he has done.

“As I was walking into Martins Ferry High, I was reminded that eastern Ohio was the hardest hit by the Abramoff scandal,” he said. “It was very meaningful for me to simply say to those students that I was sorry. I will always be.”

He describes himself as a changed person.

“I’m very deeply into my faith,” Volz said. “That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gone through the scandal. In a way it’s been a blessing for me, though it caused pain for many, many people.”

He said he became a born-again Christian in high school, but turned his back on God when he was in Washington. He renewed his faith in 2008, thanks to his work with homeless veterans.

“It was through the fellowship of the veterans I was working with that I returned to God and became born again again,” Volz said.

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