Former Ney Aide Details How Abramoff Treated 'Champions'
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
In the first public testimony by a member of Jack Abramoff's inner circle, a former congressional aide told a federal jury yesterday how the disgraced lobbyist identified his "champions" in government and then showered them with favors to get inside information and help for his clients.
Neil G. Volz, who was chief of staff to Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) before joining Abramoff's lobbying firm, testified that among those he and his colleagues considered allies were Ney and former General Services Administration official David H. Safavian, the first person brought to trial in connection with the Abramoff scandal.
Central to Team Abramoff's lobbying operation, Volz said, was developing contacts in government "who operate at a higher level" and who "for whatever reason want to help you out."
"We would call them 'champions,' " Volz told a U.S. District Court jury, now in its second week hearing evidence that Safavian lied to GSA and ethics officials about his dealings with Abramoff.
Volz testified that Safavian and Ney guided the lobbyists as they looked for ways to gain access to government-owned land in Maryland, which Abramoff wanted for a religious school, in the weeks before the lobbyists took the two officials on a luxury golf trip to Scotland.
"David was kind of the brains of the operation," Volz said, portraying Safavian as eager to aid the lobbyists on several projects before and after the Scotland trip.
Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, tried to chip away at Volz's credibility, eliciting admissions from him that he helped Ney and two staff members provide false information about the cost and the purpose of the Scotland trip to the clerk of the House. Volz admitted that he unsuccessfully floated the idea of embellishing Ney's contacts by suggesting he attended an event that included Queen Elizabeth II.
Volz, 35, is the fourth former Abramoff associate to plead guilty in the wide-ranging investigation into the lobbyist's activities. Abramoff has pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy. Volz admitted to conspiring to deprive the public of honest services and violate the one-year ban on lobbying a former boss after he left the Hill in early 2002. He could receive a sentence of five years in prison, but hopes his cooperation will result in a recommendation for probation only.
Volz's plea was considered bad news for Ney, his former boss, one of half a dozen lawmakers under scrutiny because of ties to Abramoff. The congressman has said that he did nothing wrong and that he would not step down even if indicted.
Volz suggested yesterday that Safavian had urged him to keep silent. He said he ran into Safavian at a 2005 fundraiser, just after Volz had his picture taken with President Bush. Safavian "pulled me aside," Volz said. He said the FBI had questioned him and brought up Volz's name. Said Volz: "It was definitely a pop-the-balloon moment."
A few weeks later, in early summer 2005, Volz said he ran into Safavian outside the Old Executive Office Building, where Safavian worked as the government's top procurement official at the Office of Management and Budget.
"I was trying to hurry off," Volz told the jury, explaining that he, too, had been talking to the FBI. "David mentioned to me at that time, 'Well, we all have to stick together' '' -- a statement that Volz said made him "very nervous."