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A security-company lawsuit may leave a state representative in legal limbo

A security-company lawsuit may leave a state representative in legal limbo

The case of Jeremy Holmes, an armed rent-a-cop recently charged with second-degree murder, has many tentacles—and some of them are pointing toward state Rep. Ben West Jr. (D-Hermitage) and his wife Phyllis.

On Friday at the Davidson County Circuit Court, just across the street from the municipal building named for West's daddy, two local attorneys will attempt to implicate the Wests in a conspiracy involving fraud, negligence, good ol' corporate veil obfuscation and sending an armed guard into the public without insurance. Two judges have already recused themselves from the case, which isn't surprising. West's father was former Nashville Mayor Ben West, and West himself has been a fixture at the Tennessee House of Representatives since 1985.

At issue is Security Express Protective Services, the company that employed Holmes back in 2007 during an alleged altercation at a Fourth of July fireworks display. While the bombs were bursting in air that night, a man named Robert Meeks claims that Holmes cuffed him, yanked him around by his shackled wrists and roughed him up. In May of this year, Meeks and his wife Carolyn filed suit against Holmes and his company.

It just so happens that the owner of that company is Rep. West. It also just so happens that the day after the Meekses filed suit in May, Holmes—by then employed by a different company—notoriously put a bullet through the neck of an unarmed man he says was menacing him with a vehicle.

While the Meekses' suit is unrelated to the murder charge Holmes now faces, the many switcheroos that have followed—all involving the question of who's really responsible for Security Express Protective Services, West or an umbrella corporation or both—characterize the murky moral gray zone in which the case dwells.

That umbrella is allegedly something called Securitech Inc. At one point, it was evidently the self-proclaimed parent company of West's various security ventures. On June 16, according to exhibits filed with the court clerk, Securitech's website stated, "Securitech, established in 1995, is the parent company of three corporations...." Listed below were Security Express, Security Express Protective Services (which employed Holmes) and Automated Teller Machines Unlimited.

When the Meekses' attorneys, Karin Kelley and Jack Byrd, got wind of Securitech, they naturally sought to append it to the complaint. Here's where the umbrella starts to look like a sieve—or a gutter.

In a letter submitted to the court in response, the Wests not only opposed the plaintiffs' amendment but alleged—contrary to the company's own website—that Securitech wasn't in fact the parent company at all. A separate filing also made note of the dates of incorporation. Securitech, it said, wasn't incorporated until December 2005, despite the fact that its own website had touted a 1995 birthdate. How to explain these eyebrow-raising discrepancies? Simple, the response said: The site was created by a third party.

The response went on to claim the other companies were created before Securitech, rendering the parent company allegations absurd—a chicken-or-the-egg argument the Meekses' attorneys weren't buying. Because Securitech shares an address with the other companies, the plaintiffs say, a distinction is being made without a difference—and the Wests are scurrying behind the corporate veil of liability.

On top of that, apparently even the veil keeps changing. By Aug. 11—in an about-face the plaintiffs say is further evidence that the company is nothing more than a dummy—the Securitech site had been utterly revamped, according to exhibits filed with the clerk. Nowhere to be found was any reference to Security Express Protective Services or Security Express. Both seemed, de facto, to have folded into Securitech, if not completely vanished.

"Securitech Inc. was founded by Ben West Jr. in an effort to establish a reputable security firm...," the revised site read. "Securitech Inc. is a family owned and operated business." The site then went on to list all the services that had been advertised before, only now under the Securitech umbrella.

There's just one problem. Securitech isn't a licensed business in Tennessee—and it certainly isn't licensed to provide armed guards.

"We are setting a complaint up against them and we're going to try to get a response from Mr. West," says Andrew Simpson, staff attorney for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance. "(Securitech) is advertising and promoting they're an armed and unarmed security company, which they don't have a license for."

The ever-changing website raises even more questions. If Securitech was the parent company of Ben West's other businesses, as its website previously claimed, he didn't mention it in his most recent statement of income disclosure to the Tennessee Ethics Commission. And then there's the matter of insurance. Filed with the state are two policy numbers for Security Express and Security Express Protective Services. According to these same records, the policy numbers for the two companies are identical.

That's not an unheard-of practice, when the same person owns both companies. But the plaintiffs argue that Security Express Protective Services was without valid insurance when Jeremy Holmes allegedly assaulted Robert Meeks. The insurer of West's companies, El Dorado Insurance, didn't return calls for comment.

On the one hand, according to the plaintiffs' complaint, nailing down which company in the West network was responsible for whom and what has become something of a shell game. Especially if you ask Karin Kelley and Jack Byrd, who say shifting statements about the company's ownership have mired the plaintiffs in pools of inky technicalities.

On the other, the maneuvering may simply be the first flailings of a floundering businessman. According to a federal tax lien filed in June 2004, West owes Uncle Sam $300,000 in taxes, for reasons the document does not specify.

Contacted for comment, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Ethics Commission said that legally, our representatives may not be mandated to report a fat tax lien hovering over their heads—but morally, they might be obligated. Either way, if money is what the Meekses are seeking, they may be barking up a fruitless tree.

Fairly or not, the dealings of lawmakers are held to a higher smell test—and the Meekses' complaint alleges that this one reeks. Asked about the Meekses' suit, West would only say, "This is normal. It's a pending civil lawsuit and we'll make no comment until it's done."

As for the shape-shifting Securitech website, the homepage is now, of course, barren. But beneath the logo, two intriguing words are written: "Coming Soon."

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