Don’t Ignore Red Flags Your Conscience Uses to Warn You

On Monday morning, I spoke with the senior class at Martins Ferry High School. Part of our discussion revolved around my work as the Chief of Staff for former Congressman Bob Ney. Bob and I were both involved in a scandal that resulted in the congressman serving almost two years in jail.

Our corruption was a traumatic experience for the Ohio Valley. I am sorry for the role I played in that sad and sordid episode. The proud people of our district deserved better from me. I made sure to emphasize that sentiment during my talk at the school.

In addition to apologizing for any pain I caused, my discussion with the students touched on some of the lessons I have learned from the scandal. By sharing my story I hope to connect with some of the area’s young people in a positive, honest and healthy way. In doing so, I believe it is possible to plant seeds with the students that will grow and help them later in their lives.

What kind of lessons am I talking about? When I talked with the plebes at the Naval Academy about the scandal, much of our discussion revolved around the importance of listening to your conscience when making decisions. And to stop when something doesn’t feel right.

I told the plebes how I was haunted by those moments in my life when I walked past the “red flags” of my own conscience, in pursuit of money, power and glory. The students listened intently as I outlined the professional, personal and legal consequences of those decisions.

“Be smarter than me,” I told them. “Learn from someone else’s mistakes.” Talking with several of the plebes after our group discussion was the high point of my time at the Academy. A few of the students told me that our talk had left an indelible mark and that they had learned from my bad decisions. That moment made me even more committed to sharing my story.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to a group of sophomores in my hometown of Fort Myers, Fla. Our conversation revolved around the importance of public service. Instead of digging into the specifics of the scandal, we discussed my work as the director of a homeless facility and what it meant to be the board member of a local homeless organization. The students were just beginning a project geared toward feeding the hurting and the hungry in our community. I applauded their efforts, encouraged them to remain passionate, and reminded them that there is honor in serving others.

It warms my heart when I see young people with a vibrant belief that they can change the world for the better. I felt that way when I was their age. And I found a similar passion in the hallways of Martins Ferry High School. When that happens, I will do whatever I can to cultivate their idealism and motivate those students to dream big dreams.

As the son and brother of high school teachers, I know the power of dreams. With good mentoring and a nourishing culture, today’s students can become tomorrow’s leaders. If they make that choice. And it is a choice.

As a man who was once one of the most powerful people in Washington, and now works as a janitor, trust me, I know the kind of impact our choices can have. I also know the power of cynicism. It, too, is a choice that people face. If we let it, our cynicism can corrode us emotionally and spiritually and that can collectively have a corrosive impact on our culture and our political system.

When I started volunteering for Bob Ney, I was an idealistic college student at Ohio State University. Public service seemed like the perfect way to give back and connect with something bigger than myself. Bit by bit, however, I started to become more cynical. I convinced myself that helping Bob was the same thing as helping the people of Ohio’s 18th Congressional District. Such a choice didn’t seem right at first. But I liked the power and the benefits. Before long, whatever I had to do to help Bob and I become more influential became fair game, even if that meant cutting corners and breaking the law. From there, my cynicism grew further. I got a job as a lobbyist and soon began defining a worthy client as one who had enough money to pay me. My love of power was replaced by my desire for money. Things got worse from there.

Looking back, I can’t help but think that my cynicism was like a gateway drug to my corruption. I don’t say that to explain away anything that I did. Far from it. The simple truth is that I am responsible for my choices and could have avoided the entire scandal by making different decisions, including my early decision to become a cynic. I tell that story so people know why encouraging young professionals and students to hold on to their ideals is such a passion of mine – and why it was be one of the many lessons I hoped to get across to the students of Martins Ferry High School.

Volz served as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, then worked as a lobbyist at Jack Abramoff’s firm. He cooperated with investigators looking into corruption in Congress. Volz now lives in Florida, where he works as a janitor at a restaurant.