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Firm Locked In on Freeing U.S. Citizens Overseas

David House success stories include work done for Amanda Knox.

 

Los Angeles Business Journal

By Joel Russell

When Amanda Knox, the American college student accused of murder in Italy, was freed last year, it was a victory for Eric Volz

Volz is managing director of David House Agency, a Santa Monica public relations firm that specializes in helping free U.S. citizens wrongfully imprisoned or held for political leverage in foreign countries. He was once held for nearly a year in a Nicaraguan prison, and after gaining his freedom began a career to free others, including Knox.

While the Knox case is the company’s most famous victory, it also worked for the high-profile release of three hikers who wandered across the Iranian border in 2009. It’s currently working for Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine accused of espionage in Iran.

“Our caseload concentrates on international show trials or governmental kidnappings where a country’s judicial system is manipulated for political leverage,” Volz said. “These situations have steep learning curves with an unfamiliar language, culture and legal system. A lot of times the learning curve is your worst enemy because mistakes early on make for a long and difficult resolution.”

The House Agency usually works for the families of the captive. In some cases, it only handles traditional media relations during the crisis, but at other times, it recruits and manages a team of international experts, including lawyers, private investigators, translators, a PR agency in the foreign country, and former diplomats who lobby the foreign and U.S. governments. The agency also handles communications for the family with courts, police and other public officials.

In the case of Sarah Shourd, a hiker who spent 14 months in an Iranian prison, the agency helped her parents advocate on TV and lobby the government to secure her release, and then worked with Shourd on a successful yearlong campaign to free her fiancé and a friend who were still in Iran.

“The campaign involved three families living in a prolonged state of crisis,” Shourd told the Business Journal. “Eric was extremely helpful in supporting me emotionally and giving me advice on how to take care of myself and make rational decisions during a crisis.”

Volz said that in both the Shourd and Knox cases, the key to success was changing the prisoner from a political asset to a liability for the foreign government using news media stories, legal maneuvers, diplomacy and private lobbying.

“Knowing where to apply pressure to assure that the asset-liability conversion happens is what makes the difference,” he explained.

The agency has four employees and usually handles about five cases at a time. Volz, the sole owner, named the company after the biblical David and his battle against the giant Goliath, a story that parallels the plight of his clients fighting foreign governments.

Volz is aware of the perils involved in this niche of the PR business, and he has refused cases if he feels his company doesn’t have the capacity to give them sufficient attention.

“A lot of times we’re dealing with a human life,” he said. “We’ve been careful not to overcommit and now we are going to grow at a sustainable rate.”

The agency’s fees range from pro bono work giving phone advice to as much as $35,000 a month when coordinating a large public image campaign and legal battle. That figure does not include payments to other professional firms working on the case. Desperate families are motivated to find the money.

Anthony Mora, chief executive of Anthony Mora Communications in Sherman Oaks and author of the book “Spin to Win,” said the main challenge for a small PR firm like David House will be in trying to be an expert in all the possible countries where trouble could erupt.

“There is a learning curve in figuring out how each country works,” Mora said. “Issues that seem so relevant here are nuisances in other cultures. Then the challenge becomes how do you reposition that in people’s minds?”

Volz said he and his employees have contacts around the world that help in evaluating cases, and he often uses the same lawyers and PR firms in hot-spot countries in the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America.

Personal ‘nightmare’

Volz has direct experience of life inside a foreign prison. After earning a degree in international relations at UC San Diego, he moved to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, and worked as a real estate agent and magazine publisher. When a former girlfriend was found slain, he was accused, convicted and given a 30-year sentence in early 2007, despite multiple witnesses who supported his alibi that he was elsewhere at the time of the death.

After his family appeared on national TV and the U.S. State Department got involved, an appeals court overturned his conviction in December 2007. He returned to the United States and wrote the book “Gringo Nightmare” based on his experience. The book led to speaking engagements, and soon after attorneys and families started contacting him for advice about comparable situations.

Those inquiries developed into a private consulting practice in 2009; in late 2011, Volz incorporated the business. In addition to foreign imprisonment, the company also handles international child custody fights and wrongful confiscation of corporate property by foreign governments.

Volz said many of the same experts who helped exonerate him from the wrongful conviction in Nicaragua now work with his agency, and the memory of his experience still powers the firm.

“In some ways, my case five years ago was really the first David House Agency case,” he said. “My family spent their life savings on big law firms and opportunistic specialists who claimed they could resolve my case.”