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?
It's not easy, being a changed man. Since testifying, Volz got divorced and moved to Fort Myers, Fla. After Abramoff's plea agreement, he says he became "radioactive" -- acquaintances crossed the street to avoid him -- and though he had once written multibillion-dollar legislation, he had a hard time even landing volunteer work. He finally took a job working with homeless veterans, and now runs a nonprofit called Falling Upstairs, which, according to its rudimentary Web site, is "focused on analyzing social media sites and applications which can be used to improve the current delivery system of aid for those in need."
Volz hopes to raise money for bus passes and phones for the homeless. He says he doesn't earn any income from the venture, so to support himself -- and to finish paying off $500,000 in legal fees and debts -- he cleans restaurants.
"I'm mopping floors and cleaning toilets in an effort to try and do good," he says. "I don't know that I'd be on that path if I didn't get caught. But I can tell you that in many ways, I'm a whole lot more content now than I was then."
He looks around at the surrounding polished stone, the white linen, the well-heeled clientele.
"Taco Bell's not as nice as Charlie Palmer's," Volz says with a laugh. "But it's just fine."
The road to hell, it seems, was paved with pâté. After all, it was in swank places like this where Volz, while still a Hill staffer, got into trouble, letting greed get in the way of his judgment. The food-power nexus is exactly where Abramoff, Volz and the rest of their circle operated. And where so many, in Washington as in power centers around the globe, still do.
Abramoff's secret was simple: It was all about "creating a better lifestyle for somebody," Volz says. "That had a corrosive impact on me, 'cause the free tickets, the free meals, the free travel -- singular examples seem minimal, but in its entirety it is a lifestyle improvement across the board. It's: I'm going to eat at fancy restaurants even though what I make won't allow me to afford it. I'm going to all the games I want to go to, even though if I were paying for it on my own, I wouldn't be able to do it."
Then he went from modestly paid congressional aide to well-compensated private power broker, "and I turned around and played the other role."
"I was involved in corrupt relationships," Volz says. "Relationships get built over meals, over time, over drinks. It's: Hey, I just spent two nights last week with you over dinner and drinks, and you're a busy person on the Hill, and you only have time to return one phone call -- I want it to be mine."
It's easy to see why Volz got his calls returned: He's pleasant company, disarmingly friendly and a good talker. He needs little prompting to discuss his own selfishness, his regret at not living up to the grand ideals that brought him to Washington in the first place, and about how he has been transformed by the scandal. What grinds him to a halt, though, is a question about how his family back in Ohio reacted to his disgrace.
He takes a bite of meat, a sip of soda, munches it all together in silence. Looks out the window toward the Capitol. "It's a good thing I'm chewing," he says. "I have to think that through." Behind the tinted lenses, his eyes well up.
"I grew up in an apartment," Volz says, finally. "We didn't have a whole lot. So I was clearly, like, a point of pride for the family. Moving to Washington, all that." Just after he pleaded guilty, his grandmother died and he went to Cleveland for the funeral. "It was horrible, for the paramount reason that she was gone, but you know, having people rally around you -- " He chokes up, stops. "All the hugs, 'hang in there . . . ' "
"Casino Jack" has offered something of a catharsis. At the premiere in January at Sundance, Volz reconnected with Ney. "I found him and said, I don't know if this is the only time we're going to see each other or not, but I just want to wish you well, and best of luck in whatever you do." Ney was gracious; they shook hands.
"I wanted to let him know that my heart broke for him," says Volz. "He did a lot for his constituents. That's all been overshadowed." Volz says he has also been tempted to write to Abramoff in the penitentiary, to tell him: "When you get out, you can start again."
The dishes are cleared. Volz had hardly touched his meal, but he is profusely grateful for it.
"I do like pork," he enthuses in a whisper.