Book Excerpt #2
The following is the first chapter of the book Into the Sun. For more information or to purchase the book, please visit www.neilvolz.com.
September 12, 2007
My long awaited sentencing date had finally arrived. Not a day passed during the previous few years when I hadn’t contemplated the possibilities. “Would the Judge put me in jail like she did the Congressman? Or would my punishment be something else? Time in a half way house? A hefty fine?” I would find out soon enough. Though prepared to go to prison, I desperately hoped for a lesser sentence.
Because of my decision to cooperate with the Department of Justice’s public corruption investigation, the prosecutors managing my case went to bat for me. In paperwork filed with the court, they requested a punishment of home detention. It was the best possible sentence the department could legally request from the Judge. Recognizing that I would likely have been facing multiple years in prison without their assistance, I was comforted by their proposal.
But the government’s input would only go so far. As Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle had shown months before when she sentenced Congressman Ney to three months more time in jail than what the prosecutors had requested, their suggestions were not binding in her courtroom. Combined with the fact that the high-profile Abramoff lobbying scandal remained very much in the public eye, anything seemed possible.
Whatever the outcome, it was a relief to know the uncertainty of my future would soon be over. Yearning to move forward, I viewed my sentencing like a lighthouse during a dreary, fog-filled storm.
For almost four years, life as I knew it was turned upside down by the far-reaching tentacles of Washington scandal. Bit by bit, the slow grind of the Justice Department’s inquisition had taken over my life. I became a professional pariah to avoid at all costs. Relationships were lost. Lawyers, prosecutors and FBI agents slowly replaced clients, consultants and constituents as constants in my day. Opportunities disappeared. Not a day passed when I didn’t think I was going to jail. Fear permeated my every move. And with the media’s relentless focus on the worst side of me, in many ways, even my identity stopped being my own.
Deep down, though, I knew that facing Judge Huvelle would at last give me a chance to break through that stuck-in-the-mud feeling of the previous few years. “No matter what she decides, there will at least be certainty,” I told myself. “Solid ground under my feet.” Still, I was scared to death.
Months earlier in the same courtroom, my two former bosses, lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Congressman Bob Ney, had also faced Judge Huvelle. And both were sent to prison. Now it was my turn to accept the consequences for my involvement in our criminal conspiracy.
Pundits called our crimes a lobbying scandal – and debated its significance and root cause. For those of us involved, however, it was much more personal. Our greed and unchecked ambition represented individual failings that went above and beyond the admittedly serious crimes of trading political favors for extravagant trips, high-priced sports tickets and free meals. They symbolized a spiritual corrosion. Failures that needed fixing. Something I was finally aware of as I walked into the Judge’s chambers.
Reporters and law enforcement sat on the left side of the room, family and friends on the right. Having been through numerous gut-wrenchingly raw conversations in private with my attorneys during the scandal, our small talk at the witness table seemed somewhat superficial. I nervously went through the motions. It was just another day in the fishbowl. People were watching my every move.
Nonetheless, I remained a very lucky man. In the pews behind me sat my loving family – many of whom had flown in from all over the country to provide their support. Friends in the District took the day off work to attend the hearing. Others had written letters to the Judge on my behalf. Anxiously awaiting the verdict, they had seen it all, the rise as well as the fall.
Slumping over in a courtroom chair more than a decade after idealistically flying off to Capitol Hill in an effort to fix a broken government, I sat at the bottom of an incredibly slippery slope. Originally intent on changing the corrupt ways of Washington, I instead had allowed myself to become a poster child of the very corruption I had pledged to help change. It was obvious to all that I had lost my way. Looking around the assembled crowd, I felt extremely ashamed.
Wanting to run, I incessantly stared down at my watch. Time sped up, then slowed down. As if I were trapped in a Salvador Dali painting with melting clocks and faces on the walls, minutes suddenly seemed like hours. And vice versa.
“Why are you here? How did this happen?” I asked myself for what seemed like the millionth time. “What has become of your life?”
Such questions haunted me daily. Deeply. Like an archeologist inspecting the dig of a lifetime, I sifted through the rubble. Despite the non-stop introspection, I still couldn’t fully grasp why I had participated in such corrupt activities.
“I mean, when exactly did that young purposeful kid who moved to Washington morph into the criminal who is on trial today?” I asked as my demeaning and harsh inner dialog continued. It remained tough to know for sure.
What was clear, however, was that much had changed. I was different. Washington was different. When the Abramoff scandal became public in early 2004, Republicans dominated every aspect of the federal government. It was a high-water mark of our political revolution, the Republican Revolution.
By the time a series of Washington Post stories surrounding our lobbying team’s work captured the attention of official Washington in late 2004, however, the narrative had already begun to change. Outsiders no more, we Republicans had become the establishment. And we were behaving like it. With corruption in the air, investigations into Team Abramoff, the name for the lobbying team I was a part of, started in Congress, the Department of Justice and the U.S Attorney’s office in South Florida. The glare of the media followed.
During the fall of 2004, just days after I helped President Bush win re-election, the growing scandal turned even more personal for me when I was officially contacted by Senator John McCain’s staff to discuss my relationship with Jack and Bob. McCain’s committee staff specifically wanted to talk about my efforts to attach a provision to a piece of legislation that Bob was in charge of managing for the House of Representatives. The provision would have opened a casino on tribal land for one of Jack’s American Indian clients. McCain’s staff also wanted to know how Jack’s all-expense paid golf trip to Scotland had impacted Bob’s decision making.
Within days, the vice of scandal gripped me tighter. A skyrocketing career became unglued. Finally, after more than a year of leaked news stories and legal innuendo, my lobbying career came to an abrupt end when I was publicly named a target of the investigation in Jack’s high profile plea agreement.
At the same time, in the political arena, the Democratic Party was successfully rallying public opinion against what they called a Republican “culture of corruption” on Capitol Hill. Because of mistakes occurring on our watch, the Democrats were ultimately able to win back control of Congress for the first time in twelve years. By convincing voters it was time for a change, they helped put a stake through the heart of the very political movement that brought me to Washington in the first place. And now I was in a federal courtroom, steps from the Capitol Building, facing prison.
Having spent much of the previous evening reading through my statement to the Judge and answering potential questions, I thought I was ready for what was to come. Then Judge Huvelle walked into the courtroom. Her swift entrance created an emotional tsunami that shook me to my core. I quickly assumed the worst.
“She is going to throw me in jail,” I thought as adrenaline surged through my veins. Panicking, I thought, “Not only is she going to throw me in jail, she is going to throw me in jail today.”
Huvelle’s presence quickly and irrevocably changed the dynamic in the room. There was no doubt who was in charge. She was. Her long black robe, lofty perch and domineering demeanor made me feel like I was, well, being judged. At which point, the proceeding began.
“Criminal case 06-119, United States of America versus Neil G. Volz,” the courtroom clerk announced in a squawky monotone manner. Having merely whispered those horrible “United States versus Neil Volz” syllables quietly to myself before hearing them officially read aloud, I felt like a traitor. It was horrible.
Judge Huvelle jumped into the fray, and began talking to my attorney and the Department of Justice prosecutors. “The government has filed for the reduction,” she said, referring to the prosecutor’s request to put me in a lower sentencing guideline range. Since judges generally follow the guidelines when issuing an offender’s punishment, her view on whether to grant the request for a reduction would be telling. My future hung in the balance.
“That will be granted,” she said. I sighed with relief.
Because I was a co-operator, such a reduction was assumed. Part of the deal. Of course, I never completely believed it would really happen. Until it did.
Her decision didn’t give me a get-out-of-jail free card, but it did immediately lessen my fear of spending a year or more in prison. For that I was grateful, even jubilant. Worries of a disastrous sentence began yielding to the hope of a lenient one. “Maybe I will be walking out of the courtroom with a punishment of probation or a few months of home detention after all,” I quietly thought, as the importance of her decision began to sink in.
“It appears from what you have told me that you view Mr. Volz in a slightly less culpable category than Mr. Heaton, whom I have already sentenced,” Huvelle continued in her conversation with the prosecutors.
Her comments struck a nerve. Will Heaton, the man she mentioned, had succeeded me as Congressman Ney’s chief of staff after I left to become a lobbyist. Like me, Heaton pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy charges in the Abramoff scandal. Also like me, he had cooperated with the Justice Department’s investigation. His assistance included wearing a wire and taping conversations for the FBI, conversations he and Bob had had about the relationship between Abramoff, the Congressman and myself.
Unlike me, however, Heaton was never a lobbyist or a member of Jack‘s lobbying team. Therefore, since I was involved in both sides of the conspiracy, namely giving as well as receiving things of value in return for official Congressional actions, Judge Huvelle couldn’t really think I was less culpable than Heaton could she? Likewise, I had violated the one-year ban, a law that requires certain government employees who become lobbyists from lobbying their former employers for at least a year. Her statement made me very nervous.
Kendall Day, a prosecutor for the Justice Department, stepped to the podium to respond. “Your Honor, I would phrase it just a little differently. We view him as someone who has given more substantial assistance and therefore is worthy of a greater 5K departure than Mr. Heaton,“ he said using the legal term for how law enforcement bargains on behalf of people who cooperate in their investigations.
It was the best answer he could have given, I thought. By emphasizing my cooperation instead of my culpability, Prosecutor Day was playing to my strengths. Since I knew more about the inner workings of the Abramoff and Ney relationship than Heaton did, due to the fact I worked for both men, the prosecution’s emphasis on that side of the equation had to be helpful, I assumed. Or hoped.
Since I was already intently focused on every angle of the proceeding, the comparison of my situation to Heaton’s had me watching even closer. I was convinced that every raised eyebrow by the Judge or muscle twitch by the prosecution meant something. Nothing was unimportant.
After all, in July, Heaton had received a sentence from Judge Huvelle of probation, community service and a fine for his role in the conspiracy. For him, it was the perfect outcome. For me, it was the perfect marker. A ray of hope. No jail time, no halfway house and no home detention. Instead of increasing Heaton’s sentence from what the government was requesting like she had done for Bob, Judge Huvelle had actually reduced it. For the preceding two months, I had considered it a positive reminder of what was possible.
Whether she reduced Heaton’s punishment because he was a smaller player in the conspiracy, had cooperated in the investigation or because she found him to be a good guy caught up in something bad, I didn’t know. But my mind raced trying to figure it out.
“All right,” Judge Huvelle replied noncommittally while continuing to outline my assistance in the case. “You’ve set forth his cooperation. He has provided substantial assistance and will get a lot of credit for that obviously,” she continued. “You also seem to imply that his activities, while he violated the one-year ban as well as gave and received things of value, is somewhat less egregious than some of the cases we’ve seen before. Is that fair?”
“That is fair, Your Honor,” Day replied. “I guess the one thing I would emphasize that we’ve already touched upon is that, in our view, we could have successfully prosecuted Congressman Ney with the assistance of Mr. Volz, but without his assistance we could not have brought a successful prosecution,” he continued, going back once again to my cooperation in their case against my former boss. “That is different than the assistance Mr. Heaton gave,” he said. “His assistance alone wouldn’t have allowed a successful prosecution.”
“Okay,” Judge Huvelle replied .
Staring blankly ahead, I beamed internally with joy. Day and the team of prosecutors were going to bat for me.
“From your point of view,” she asked him, “if one of my goals as a judge is to have a certain equity or parity among those in similar situations, if I take into consideration the sentence I gave Mr. Heaton, is there any reason in your view to deviate in any substantial way?”
“Did she really just say that?” I asked myself incredulously. “Is there any reason to deviate in any substantial way?”
Knowing the dream outcome was to get the same sentence Heaton had received, I let her words fuel my growing excitement. Everything seemed to be falling into place. All I needed now was for my colleagues over at the prosecutor’s table to tell the judge there was no reason to deviate from Heaton’s sentence.
Unfortunately, my secret celebration didn’t last long. Instead of just saying no, Day went into a thorough dissection of Heaton’s punishment in comparison to what they were requesting for me. As a substitute to my previous impulse of wanting to high-five my Justice Department teammates, Day’s statements served as a harsh reminder that the folks with the badges weren’t there to help me get a good sentence. They were there to administer justice, as they envisioned it.
“We do feel that it’s important that there be some deprivation of liberty,” Prosecutor Day said, regarding my impending punishment. “Given the crimes to which Mr. Volz pled guilty and in which he participated, some restriction on his personal liberty is necessary.”
Watching the words “deprivation of liberty” spill from Day’s mouth, in his slow Kansas drawl, was like getting kicked in the chest by a mule. Wanting to feel betrayed, I knew better. He was doing his job. And his words were now out there.
Like earlier, Judge Huvelle’s reaction to her give and take with the prosecutors was muted. Whether any of their comments would make a difference or not, I would just have to wait and see.
From there, it was my attorney’s turn to address the Judge. Right on cue, Tim Broas rose from the chair next to me. His movement provided a much-needed break in the action. A collective sigh rose from the room. Reporters’ pens scribbled. The team of prosecutors and FBI agents, sitting to my right, quietly but knowingly spoke to one another through their subtle facial expressions and body language. Everyone else’s attention was focused on my attorney. Everyone but the Judge. The intense glare of Judge Huvelle bore down on me like she was inspecting my very soul. Her eyes never wavered.
Tim began to speak. “One cannot grasp the circumstances of the offense without understanding the history and character of Neil Volz,” he said, commanding the attention of not only the audience, but finally, Huvelle as well. “Mr. Volz grew up in a small town in Ohio – Finneytown, Ohio, living in an apartment.”
“Both parents were school teachers, and his older brother, who is here with us today along with his parents and other members of his family and his wife’s family, is a teacher at that school now,” he continued.
The mention of my family immediately triggered within me the ever-present demons of shame and embarrassment that came to life whenever I thought about my family having to live with my well-known criminal status back in our hometown. In Finneytown, the dialog had changed. Gone was the source of family pride who bounded into his old classrooms to regale students with stories of political intrigue and hard work on behalf of the people of Ohio. In his place was a corrupt former Congressional staffer, greedy lobbyist and convicted felon. My heart broke for them.
I felt as if I were watching my own funeral. Tears welled up in my eyes. Looking back at my wife, my brother, my parents and the support system I was lucky to have, I wished from the bottom of my heart that none of their support was needed. It infuriated me knowing that they were being buried by my past few years of baggage, baggage that was continuing to pile up. I wanted it all to end.
“In many ways his story is a classic American story,” Tim said plainly. “A small-town boy goes to a big state university, gets an internship with a rising political star, and before you know it, they are on their way to Washington. Very, very heady stuff for a young man who is still in college. But for Mr. Volz, this was a dream come true.”
“And despite the doubts and fears of his family and friends in Ohio, they all supported him and wished him well,” he continued. “Mr. Volz worked hard and rose to be Mr. Ney’s chief of staff, and then staff director of the House Administration Committee. As the Republican Revolution unfolded, Neil and his boss were among the rising stars.”
Judge Huvelle’s watchful gaze followed my every move. Since she undoubtedly had read the reams of paperwork on the case already, I presumed that she wanted to get a better feel for who I was with her own eyes.
Included in the judge’s pre-sentencing documents were 61 letters written on my behalf by family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues. Assuming she had read through each one of the letters, Tim directed much of the opening part of his presentation to them.
“The letters describe a wholesome upbringing in a supportive and loving family, imparting values to their children,” he said. “These letters provide the context, the history, the blood lines, if you will, to understand how Neil Volz came to commit these offenses, accept responsibility, and seek to atone for them through his cooperation with the Justice Department and his enduring character and generosity of spirit and commitment to serving the public good,” he continued.
On a roll, Tim said, “He is a good man who committed a serious error in judgment. Neil found himself in a sort of moral vertigo,” he went on, outlining the pull I felt between loyalty to my bosses and doing the right thing.
“He trusted the integrity and judgment of two highly respected and powerful men who, unbeknownst to him, were corrupting themselves, stealing from clients, and cheating the American public of honest services.”
“Naïve? Yes. Excuses? No. Mr. Volz has accepted responsibility, and in the face of ridicule, loss of employment, public humiliation, financial despair, and shame among those near and dear, he boldly stepped forward and chose to admit his errors and to pay his debt to society by helping the Department of Justice conduct this investigation and bring other wrongdoers to justice.”
Despite the fact that his words were coming from a person getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to say them, they were still nice to hear.
“Unlike many others, Mr. Volz did not publicly protest. He did not enter a joint defense agreement. He did not choose to be a victim. He came forward in April 2005, before anyone else had pleaded guilty, and began cooperating with the Department of Justice. And in the process, he led the Department of Justice to three major convictions, not including his own.”
The more Tim spoke the more I began to feel like my entire life itself was on trial. “Mr. Volz is a young man with potential to recover, and has a bright future,” he continued. “He has suffered immeasurably already. He is a convicted felon. He cannot find employment. His reputation is forever soiled and tarnished. His good name will always be associated with this scandal.”
Looking back at my family, I saw that they were now the ones fighting back tears. “His cooperation has been so valuable that the convictions he has helped DOJ obtain will undoubtedly deter public officials and lobbyists from committing similar crimes in the future,” he said, subtly making the argument that a lenient sentence for me could encourage other potential cooperators in the case to come forward.
“Can anyone doubt these convictions – and no doubt there are more to come – have put all of official Washington on notice?” my attorney asked. “Putting Mr. Volz in jail will not advance the course of deterrence, Your Honor, nor would it advance the respect for the law. In fact, it would have just the opposite effect.”
Judge Huvelle sat expressionless, listening to my defense with her arms crossed.
“Last and quickly, Your Honor, with respect to Mr. Volz’s cooperation, he testified as the government’s main witness in the Safavian trial. He was the first and only cooperator in this investigation to testify. He described Mr. Ney and Mr. Heaton and Mr. Safavian’s conduct on the infamous Scotland golf trip, complete with photographs and bar receipts, all provided by Mr. Volz.”
“People took notice immediately,” my lawyer continued. “Mr. Heaton began cooperating shortly thereafter, in June 2006, and ultimately pleaded guilty to a felony. Mr. Ney began discussions with the Department of Justice, and he ultimately pleaded guilty and is now serving a 30-month sentence in jail. And it’s not over. Your Honor, Mr. Volz has promised to continue to cooperate, and is doing so literally as we speak.”
As planned, my attorney’s presentation was short. His was just the beginning of the conversation. Like Tim had told me days before, “I am not the one the Judge wants to hear from. It is your story that she wants to hear.”