editorial (2006-49)

Scott West’s Sentencing

What does it mean for downtown?

Scott West’s Sentencing

Last Friday wasn’t a typical day at U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips’ federal court.

Among the 80-odd spectators were servers, bartenders, off-duty journalists, a few well-known musicians. Hair and clothing styles departed from the courtroom norm. Nonetheless, witnesses at the sentencing showed respect for the court. They stood when told to stand, and sat when told to sit. They stayed quiet, and listened.

Scott West entered the room from the front, almost unrecognizable, his long hair cut in a schoolboy shag, his trademark lope inhibited by leg-irons, his famous grin left behind somewhere last summer.

The state, represented by attorney David Jennings, agreed with the defense on one matter. It was a “non-traditional” case. And it was that.

West was, on the one hand, the convicted felon, lynchpin in what has been called one of the biggest money-laundering schemes in memory, a multi-state conspiracy involving thousands of pounds of marijuana.

He was also, on the other hand, one of the most conspicuous leaders of downtown Knoxville’s revitalization, involved in about a dozen different retail businesses over the years in both the Old City and Market Square, a seemingly tireless planner of festivals and charity benefits.

West’s attorney Don Bosch pointed out that he had received at least 122 letters supporting West; the judge had also received seven letters condemning West. Bosch pointed out that not one of the critical letters came from anyone who actually knew the defendant.

After an emotional, and voluntary, statement by West, who apologized to his parents, wife, and mother-in-law (whose major investments in Market Square were largely forfeited to the government), he said his “strong desire to be a driving force in downtown Knoxville’s revitalization… clouded and confused” his judgment. An excuse like that might have sounded fishy coming from anybody else.

Judge Phillips acknowledged West’s virtues, but added that his “good works were financed with drug money.” Bosch drove home his argument that West was not, “as some media here inappropriately suggested,” seeking preferential treatment; rather, he was seeking a fair punishment that took into account both the crime and West’s full post-arrest cooperation.

Though Judge Phillips didn’t throw the book at him—sentencing guidelines allowed up to nine years, and the judge acknowledged “rewarding” him for his assistance to the government in investigating the case—West’s 75-month sentence for his part in his brother’s conspiracy was a disappointment to West’s family and friends, who were hoping for something closer to the 44 months his attorney asked for. Judge Phillips said such a reduction was contemplated mainly in cases where a defendant had put his life at risk on the government’s behalf.

West did get six years and three months, to be served in a minimum-security “camp” in either Lexington or Montgomery, a choice probably to be made next month. But it’s possible, given time already served, 15 percent off for good behavior, credits for drug rehabilitation, and a halfway-house program, West can return to the Knoxville community on a closely supervised basis by September, 2010.

Market Square will survive. Contrary to some misconceptions, it is not a house of cards, propped up by drug money. Nor is its success dependent upon the Wests, whose contributions to downtown, and specifically to Market Square, are relatively limited. The Wests once owned several addresses on the square, but never more than about 30 percent of them. Predictions of the collapse of Market Square in a post-Scott-West era are silly. A majority of the vigorous and apparently thriving businesses on Market Square—Tomato Head, La Costa, Vagabondia, Reruns, etc.—have no connection to the Wests at all.

Another misconception is that the Wests’ businesses were supported entirely with marijuana money. While we don’t know what the books look like, the capacious bar and nightclub Preservation Pub is often standing room only, even on weeknights. The retail shop anachronistically known as Earth to Old City is often bustling, easily as popular as other shops of similar size in town. Those are obvious, but the Wests’ other businesses are sometimes crowded and may be successful, too. The Wests’ businesses will remain open as the government finds buyers for the buildings. We suspect that smart buyers will find it in their best interest to invite them to stay.

But we can’t deny the old place may be a tad quieter. West was the idea man, always thinking of something new that hadn’t been done in Knoxville before: showing movies in a parking lot, a bar that was deliberately intellectual, another bar that was deliberately international, another bar dedicated to the idea of historical preservation. He sponsored some of the most interesting bands ever. Some of his ideas maybe weren’t fully baked, and didn’t work—but several of them did.

We regret the role West played in the conspiracy, and the penalty he’s paying for it. But we believe his influence on the city of Knoxville in the last 15 years has been positive, on balance.

A large part of his value to Knoxville has been as an example, and an exception. In the recent past, Knoxville retailers’ business practices have been, on the whole, so conservative that they’ve left many well-traveled citizens with the impression that Knoxville had no aspirations to be anything but a smaller and slower imitation of Atlanta or Nashville.

We wish that more law-abiding business people were as open-minded and full of surprising ideas and energy as Scott West has been. In his absence, we challenge the hidebound business community of Knoxville to prove you don’t need to break the law to have a fresh idea now and then.