Jack Abramoff left a big handprint on everyone he touched. Just ask former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and his one-time top aide Neil Volz.
Before Abramoff pleaded guilty to charges related to corruption of public officials and defrauding his American Indian tribe clients, the now-infamous überlobbyist helped catapult Ney and Volz into the epicenter of power on Capitol Hill.
Abramoff was also instrumental in the pair's ultimate demise in Washington politics. Ney served jail time related to the Abramoff affair, and Volz, who left Ney's staff to work as a lobbyist in Abramoff's team at Greenberg Traurig, avoided prison but not a felony conviction.
Despite their downfalls, both were on hand for the Washington premiere this week of the new documentary "Casino Jack and the United States of Money." Abramoff, of course, was not there: He's scheduled to be released from prison this year.
Even though they were back in town, Ney and Volz were far removed from Abramoff's Washington as they did interviews Thursday in a nondescript conference room at the Westin Washington, D.C. City Center hotel.
Long gone were the power suits and nights of hobnobbing at the "it" Capitol Hill hangouts.
Ney and Volz returned to Washington, five years after the Abramoff scandal began to unravel, with decidedly less flair. Ney in a yellow button-down shirt and tie, Volz, sans tie completely. Neither will benefit from the movie's proceeds.
The ex-lawmaker and his once-very-close senior aide say the movie brought them back in touch. They stopped speaking in 2006, but the two reconnected when they attended the documentary's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. And they have continued to communicate since, writing each other about policy issues.
A Life of Crime
The documentary relies heavily on interviews by Ney and Volz to tell the story of Abramoff and his high-flying lobbying act representing Indian gaming interests and Northern Mariana Islands sweatshops.
Once sucked in by the potentially biggest power broker of them all, Volz says he has no desire to return to politics or Washington.
"That is not my goal. Like a lot of things, it's complicated. I miss parts of Washington, but I don't miss Washington," Volz said. "This town just gets split, you are quickly labeled and commonalities are hard to find."
He now lives in South Florida and says the return from the brink has been a long and humbling journey.
Volz pleaded guilty in 2006 to helping Abramoff bribe Ney and was sentenced in 2007 to two years probation, as well as community service and a $2,000 fine.
After leaving lobbying disgraced, Volz worked first as a program director for a Virginia nonprofit focused on rehabilitating and housing homeless veterans. The experience, he said, "changed my life."
Not that it was easy to forget the life of living large on client expense accounts and schmoozing with Washington elite. But Volz said he decided to take the advice that he gave homeless veterans to get their life back on track — make five calls a day to people, everyday, until you get a job.
Making a fresh start was tough, having to fill out job applications and write that he was a convicted felon, Volz said. Ultimately, he took a job managing a motel that didn't require a criminal background check.
He now works at Falling Upstairs, a nonprofit geared toward improving social services.
"When I moved, I didn't know a soul," Volz said, which is exactly what he wanted.
For Ney, complete anonymity was not the goal. After leaving the Morgantown, W.Va., penitentiary, a place he calls the "Bush Housing Program," Ney returned to Ohio. He now hosts a talk radio show in Newark, Ohio, largely focused on politics, but also touching on more spiritual things, such as meditation.
The self-described "Recovering Republican" — his voter card still lists him as a GOPer — says that he has found a new freedom in his quasi-public life, telling the inside stories of how Washington really works.
This wasn't Ney's first trip back inside the Beltway. He's even been to the Members' dining room.
"I don't make it a regular habit," said Ney, the former chairman of the House Administration Committee. But he continues to visit Washington semi-regularly for work and for high-profile events such as the president's annual State of the Union address.
During those visits, Ney says he has "been treated better than I deserve" by lawmakers he used to serve with in Congress.
While Ney says he has no desire to return to public life, he does want to be involved in reforming the prison system. Ney was released from prison in August 2008 after serving 17 months of a 30-month sentence for conspiracy and making false statements in the corruption scandal centered on ex-lobbyist Abramoff.
Ney believes he could be part of an awareness and education campaign about how to fix the prison system. He said his time in the penitentiary gives him unique insight.
Ney added that he thinks elected officials need a broader experience to address a complicated system where drug addicts aren't rehabilitated, just housed in jails before returning to a life of crime on the streets.
"I think Members of Congress and judges before they are elected should be required to do prison time," Ney said.