'Casino Jack' Abramoff's sidekick Neil Volz hasn't lost appetite for good life

A sketch of Neil Volz at Charlie Palmer Steak made using an iPad.
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; 1:43 PM

One thing is clear: Neil Volz is a changed man.

"I'm the most underdressed person here," the former lobbyist says with a self-deprecating chuckle, looking around Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill a bit apprehensively. He's wearing faded jeans and an unremarkable pale green shirt, no tie. Tinted wraparound glasses on a Croakies cord allow him to sneak quick looks to see if there's anyone he knows in the joint. Of course, there are: Among the lunchtime crowd on a recent workday are a couple of lobbyists and a guy he knew from the Hill. Volz doesn't meet their eyes.

But surely few would recognize this freckled, fair-skinned man who looks so much like a tourist, even though he's in his old stomping grounds. Just a few years ago he was one of the most powerful lobbyists in town. That was before 2006, when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy in one of the biggest cases of corruption involving members of Congress this town has seen: the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal. Volz testified as a cooperating witness for the prosecution, which saved him from prison -- unlike his onetime bosses Abramoff, who was sentenced to four years (he's due out in December), and former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who served 17 months of a 30-month sentence.

Volz, 39, is in town to talk about his participation in "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," director Alex Gibney's new documentary about Abramoff -- "the man who bought Washington" -- and his complicated set of shell games involving Indian gambling and island sweatshops that turned big money into political access. (The film opens on May 7 at E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row.)

You could also call Abramoff the man who sank Washington, or nearly did: Ultimately, in addition to his own undoing, his schemes helped bring down former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and a number of congressional staffers, Bush administration officials and other lobbyists.

Volz, at one time Ney's staff director, then a lobbyist on Abramoff's team, gives some of the most colorful interviews in the film. Abramoff "could sweet-talk a dog off a meat truck," he says at one point. Volz ought to know: He was living large off the man's silver tongue, helping to woo clients by holding court in Abramoff's Penn Quarter restaurant Signatures (now closed).

That glossy eatery, which figures in the documentary, was "a huge tool in my lobbying toolbox," Volz says over a Coke while we wait to order. "It was like, okay, come on in for a nice meal, a nice atmosphere, and I guarantee you you're going to walk away impressed by me. I'm like the host of that restaurant. All the waiters know: He's on Jack's team, make him look good."

Could the tables be more turned today? Volz, in Washington for the first time since he testified, has fond memories of Charlie Palmer Steak, a popular lobbyist hangout; eating here now, however, seems freighted with nostalgia and even awe. The waiter arrives to describe the special: prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin, stuffed with preserved cherries, covered in something called "pork naturel" sauce. It weighs in at half a pound.

Volz is intrigued: "So it's pork wrapped in prosciutto, with pork sauce? That's a triple pork, right there."

True, and considering we're talking about influence peddling in politics, it's almost poetic. It's the crooked-lobbyist meal a Hollywood food consultant might devise. We keep this observation to ourselves as Volz orders it.

The bread basket arrives. "Oooh, I remember this bread," Volz says to the waiter. He indicates a spot near his glass. "Right there, sir."

Kinda miss the good life, huh?

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