Canton Repository

January 6, 2006

Abramoff plea raises questions about ex-Ney aide

By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON - A former top aide to Rep. Bob Ney, R-Heath, may have lobbied the Ohio lawmaker and members of his staff in violation of a federal law as part of an effort to reopen an Indian casino, court documents and e-mails suggest.

Neil Volz, who left Ney’s employ in February 2002 to become a lobbyist, is among a score of current or former government officials and lawmakers — including Ney — who are under investigation in a broad federal probe of bribery and corruption in Congress and the executive branch.

Volz is referred to in a description of a corruption scheme in a plea agreement signed by onetime super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud, bribery and tax evasion earlier this week.

Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon, have admitted to defrauding several Indian tribe clients of tens of millions of dollars in lobbying fees, among other crimes they pleaded guilty to in the scandal.

Identifying Volz only as “Staffer B,” the Abramoff plea agreement suggests he may have lobbied Ney, members of his congressional staff and the House Administration Committee only one month after leaving a staff position on Ney’s committee — far short of the one-year cooling off period required by law.

Ney has been chairman of the Administration Committee since 2001.

When Volz joined Abramoff as a lobbyist at the Greenberg Traurig law firm in early 2002, Abramoff and Scanlon were laboring to get an El Paso casino owned by the Tigua Indians reopened after Texas authorities had shut it down.

Ney agreed to insert a provision to reopen the casino in an election reform bill he was pushing through Congress.

Although Volz was allowed to lobby the vast majority of lawmakers on the Tigua issue and other matters, a so-called “revolving door” statute barred him from lobbying Ney or his staff, or the Administration Committee where Volz had served as staff director, for one year.

The 1989 law is meant to prevent former lawmakers and their staff from using their former positions to exert improper influence.

Guidelines issued by the House Ethics Committee state that a lobbyist covered by the ban, such as Volz, may not “knowingly communicate with or appear before his or her former employing office or committee, with the intent to influence, on behalf of any other person, the official actions of a member, officer or employee in such office or on such committee.”

The Abramoff plea agreement says Volz contacted Ney, his staff and the committee beginning in March 2002, just a month after leaving Ney’s office.

Abramoff “intended” that Volz communicate with Ney, his staff and committee staff “for the purpose of influencing official action on behalf of Abramoff’s and Staffer B’s (Volz’s) clients,” says the document, which was signed by Abramoff.

Volz and his attorney did not return phone calls seeking an interview. Ney also declined to comment.

Although the Abramoff plea agreement provides few details, e-mails obtained by Copley News Service but not released to the public shed light on Volz’s activities and show Abramoff was concerned they could be perceived as illegal.

In several e-mails he sent to Abramoff, Volz discussed the negotiations taking place to reach a compromise on the elections bill. Ney, who was co-chairman of the negotiating committee along with Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., had agreed to put language to reopen the casino in the bill.

“Bob and his whole election reform team are all over the world right now, so negotiations are not going on this week,” Volz wrote on May 30, 2002. “But here is what I have gotten in terms of the latest information,” the e-mail continued before laying out the negotiating timetable.

In a June 3 e-mail, Volz told Abramoff that “winks and nods have taken place between the congressman and the senator on this issue. Agreement is there and staff who know are not talking because that is what they have been told, and because staff actually negotiating should not know, because neither side wants this involved in negotiations.”

Abramoff expressed concern that Volz’s actions could be misinterpreted as illegal in a communication with Marc Schwartz, a Tigua representative whom Abramoff kept apprised of his lobbying efforts.

“I would prefer that you don’t share this e-mail, since Neil is not directly lobbying the committee (since he was COS only a few months ago and has a lobbying ban for one year), but can still get us info,” Abramoff wrote in a May 30 update. “I just don’t want it out that he is in the process since the press could mangle that if it ever came out in the wash.”

“COS” refers to Volz’s previous position as chief of staff for Ney.

The Department of Justice has declined to discuss its interpretation or enforcement of the one-year lobbying restriction.

But Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Action’s Congress Watch, a government watchdog group, said no former lawmaker has ever been prosecuted for violating the ban.

He also doubts that any former staff member has been prosecuted, he said.