Q & A: Former lobbyist and staffer Neil Volz

Neil Volz always wanted to be an author — it’s just that his new book, Into the Sun, wasn’t what he ever imagined writing. Volz was convicted of conspiracy in 2006 as part of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal; his memoir details how he went from a small-town Ohio native working for his congressman on Capitol Hill to a high-flying lobbyist who got caught up in practices that breached ethical and legal boundaries.

Volz, now a janitor in Florida, spoke to The Hill about why he decided to write the book and how his life has changed since the scandal. 

Why did you decide to write this book?

My hope is that sharing my story will help other people in their lives. Depending on the audience, that could mean that for a young person, I hope that they take away something from the book about listening to their conscience. I’m really excited about the idea about young people interested in government reading the book so that they can learn to interact with their government. 

An open, honest conversation about money and politics is very much needed right now. … For me, there would’ve been no Abramoff scandal if people like Jack Abramoff and Neil Volz made different decisions. And for me that’s solid ground right there. I hope what people can take away from the book is, we are a reflection of our own decisions.

What was your writing process like?

I had been working as a janitor. I would clean a restaurant up the street. I was working the night shift, 3 to 10 p.m., generally.

I would write during the day, and then, believe it or not, pushing a mop … was good for me in terms of working through the issues.

I wanted to do my best to get in the moment, remember what I was thinking at the time, what was happening at the time.

Was it at all therapeutic for you to write this book?

Early on it was very therapeutic, and it helped me kind of rustle through what are interlocking issues of complex emotions and memories and perspective.

Why did you decide to self-publish the book? Did you talk to any big publishing houses?

I did. I talked to quite a few, and then I had two or three somewhat serious conversations, too, that folks said they were interested, but the time frame to do it wasn’t working. 

I was … putting myself into a place of, I want to finish this so I didn’t keep looking back constantly. 

Fundamentally, I wrote this book for me and for people close to me, and if it connects with other people, great. I hope it does, but time will tell.

You mentioned you’ll be in your old boss Bob Ney’s congressional district this week to speak with high-school students. What are you going to say to them?

I’m going to Martins Ferry High School in Ohio. I’m going to talk to the senior class there … about how our government works. I want to encourage them to learn from their mistakes and listen to their conscience. I want the community to know that I’m sorry for what I did to that community. And I’m going to open it up for questions.

My mom’s a teacher, my brother’s a teacher, and I enjoy that. High-school students are pretty unvarnished, and they’ll ask the questions that many of us are thinking.

I know that it’s pretty ironic coming from me, but I want high-school students to know that they can love their government and they can dream big dreams.

I think I’m pretty good at connecting with young people, so that’s pretty exciting.

What are you doing now for work?

Right now, I am multi-pronged. What puts food on the table is, I’m still cleaning. I’m a janitor, cleaning restaurants, that kind of thing. This is a transitional period for me, and it’s worked well.

And what I’d like to transition into is a nonprofit job, teaching, something like that.

That being said, my passion is working with the homeless. I run the homeless ministry at my church. And I’m on the board of directors on the Lee County Homeless Coalition.

You write, “In a capitalist system like ours, individuals and organizations should be allowed to buy access to their elected leaders.” Is that something you still believe? It seems to fly in the face of your work with the homeless. 

I do. The reason I bring that up is, I think we should talk about it and be open about it. I’m not saying it’s fair, but it is a linchpin of our current system, and yet we have this dysfunctional process in which no one talks about it.

I think the alternative is worse. The alternative is to cut down access to elected officials.

So how would homeless people, for instance, buy access to elected officials?

That would not be their way to gain access to an elected official. I believe the ultimate currency in politics is the vote. So people need to organize themselves and apply pressure. Money is one way; it’s not the only way.

What are your thoughts on working in politics again?

I’m not interested in getting back in the game. I do love politics, but I don’t want to be … the Abramoff Scandal Boy of everything I do. But that being said, it’s important. I like to be a leader here locally in my community. I’m already doing that. I am not interested in moving back to Washington.

You write that your grandmother encouraged you to keep a diary when you went to Washington. Did you?

There were two days that I had a journal that I sat down and actually wrote about what was going on. I had lots of notes, kind of reflections. One was a little bit after 9/11, and one was a little bit after the day when mine and Bob [Ney’s] relationship fell apart.

What’s your relationship like with Ney and Abramoff now?

I talk to Bob pretty regularly. We’re not going out for freedom fries and beer, but we’re at a good place. And we’ve talked for hours at end on the phone. And I think we both wanted some closure. We both recognized that each of us could have been mad at the other one for a long time if we chose to. And frankly, we decided to take each other’s picture off our dart boards.

I reached out to Jack to wish him luck on his book tour. I outlined to him that it was great to reconnect with Bob. Jack, because of his legal situation, we’re not able to talk at this moment.

You write about how people can change. How have you changed?

I think I’ve learned humility. And I think I’ve reconnected with God. I’d like to think that I was pretty well-grounded in both those areas as a young person, and I lost my way and became very arrogant, very greedy and became self-serving. And now I don’t have all the answers, and I’m trying. 

Are you paying attention to the 2012 GOP presidential primary? Whom do you support?

I haven’t made up my mind between the Republican candidates and the president. I’m open to any of those options currently.