re-ney-ssance

Speaking of prison as transformative experience, I was catching up on some rss reading recently and noticed this at the end of an article about former Representative Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who was just released from custody after serving time in prison and a halfway house for his role in the Jack Abramoff scandal:

During his months in prison, Ney said he tutored fellow inmates, answered letters and read more books than he had in 12 years. He also entered a 12-step program to deal with his alcoholism.

Asked whether the experience had changed him, Ney responded, “This type of [t]hing changes you. I didn’t come out bitter or losing my bearings. I’m not saying that everything is absolutely fine — substance abuse is not a good thing. That’s a good change.”

Interestingly, former Ney staffer Neil Volz has also undergone a transformation of his own. As Volz tells it in this interview (via),

“I came to Washington this total idealist,” Volz told The Dispatch last week in his first public comments since he began working with federal prosecutors in 2005. “But it’s kind of like I took on this mind-set that there was a machine at work and I was just a cog in the machine. And, therefore, I need to get mine.”

It was a world of trying to justify accepting gifts that he knew were wrong, in exchange for legislative favors that he knew never should have been granted.

“It is a lot easier to rationalize something away when you are in the front row watching Michael Jordan play basketball,” Volz said. “That’s sad to say, but if I can kind of spend the next many years at least being honest about what’s happened … hopefully, whatever does come about, for my life, I can live with that.”

After a while, Volz says, he began to have second thoughts about his involvement in this world, but his first step away was not a very decisive one: in 2002 he took a job as a lobbyist with Abramoff’s firm.

“I lived in this insular world where everything was simple, because it was based around Bob’s best interests,” Volz said. “So it was kind of like I thought, ‘If I could get away from some of that, even if it’s going to Abramoff, somehow I could get into a better place.’

“But my priority was not, ‘I want to be the most ethical staffer/lobbyist in Washington.’ If that had been my priority, I never would have gone to work for Team Abramoff.”

Volz didn’t get much of a raise beyond his congressional salary of about $145,000 a year when he went to work for Abramoff. But the expectation of big money was just down the road, especially if he cashed in on his connections to Ney and others on Capitol Hill.

Ultimately, the new job was not a big enough change: Volz found himself again working closely with Ney on Abramoff projects. And it’s not clear from the interview just how much change Volz really wanted at the time. Presumably he couldn’t get too far from his old life if he was still hoping to make use of his “connections to Ney and others on Capitol Hill.”

But Volz continued to take small steps:

In early 2004, The Washington Post ran a story about Abramoff and the millions of dollars in fees he was taking from clients such as Indian tribe casino owners.

The story prompted Volz to not only take a fresh look at his own improper activities, but also to see the broad swath that Abramoff was cutting.

Abramoff left the firm of Greenberg Traurig and went to a different lobbying firm, followed by many of the members of “Team Abramoff.” But Volz decided it was time to get out.

“I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to get on the straight and narrow,’ ” he said. “I was scared, hoping all the black clouds would just pass over. But I wasn’t going to dig a deeper hole.”

Eventually, when the investigation reached him in 2005, he decided to cooperate:

“The clutter was lifting,” he said. “My contacts on the Hill didn’t matter. I was going to tell the truth.”

Volz’s 67-year-old father, a retired salesman and college professor from the Cincinnati area who is fighting Parkinson’s disease, told Volz it was time to come clean.

“My dad just kept telling me that at the end of the day, the guys with the badges are the good guys,” Volz said. “My friends and family all told me I had to just tell the truth. The fact is that cooperating was in my and my family’s best interests.

“I am not hiding from that. But I also knew that I looked long and hard at myself. I was committed to doing what I knew I could live with when I was 50 and 60 and 70 years old.”

Volz plead guilty and was sentenced to two year’s probation; his cooperation helped him avoid prison. He’s now working for an organization that helps homeless veterans with housing and employment.

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