FEDS RAID Gibson Guitar Facilities (Memphis/Nashville)

*TheNewAmerican/Michael Tennant*

At approximately 8:45 a.m. on August 24, federal agents raided Gibson Guitar Corporation facilities in Nashville and Memphis, making off with an estimated $1 million worth of Gibson property. Gibson’s alleged crime? Using imported wood from endangered trees. At least that’s what the company assumes the feds have in mind. Gibson hasn’t actually been notified of any charges against the company. In fact, according to a Gibson press release, they still haven’t been told on what charges “more than a dozen agents with automatic weapons” raided their factory and stole their property in November 2009. They’re being forced to sue in federal court to get their property back, and even there the government is stalling, having requested an indefinite stay of the case.

Both raids appear to stem from allegations that Gibson imported wood from foreign countries in violation of the Lacey Act. Originally enacted to prevent trafficking in endangered species, the act was amended in 2008 to include plants. According to the Rainforest Alliance

the law makes it illegal to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce any plant, with some limited exceptions, taken or traded in violation of the laws of the U.S., a U.S. State, or relevant foreign law. The U.S. government can use this law to impose significant penalties on individuals and companies who are found guilty of such acts.

Wood being a plant product, any company that imports any wood-based product must, as the Wall Street Journal put it, meet “every regulatory jot and tittle” of the country from which the wood was harvested — and, says Gibson, that applies “if you did not observe a law even though you had no knowledge of that law in a foreign country.” Moreover, because (in the words of the Rainforest Alliance) “the ban on illegal timber as defined in the Lacey Act amendments has not been supported by a clear framework of regulation that sets guidelines for importers, exporters and traders,” it leaves the government a wide range of discretion to persecute businesses that have run afoul of politicians, political appointees, and bureaucrats. Lew Rockwell may have been onto something when he suggested that the attacks on Gibson have precious little to do with preserving trees and much to do with the fact that the company “failed to bribe the right people in DC.”

The 2009 raid concerned wood imported from Madagascar, which the Justice Department maintains was obtained in violation of Madagascan law. “Gibson,” says the company’s press release, “has obtained sworn statements and documents from the Madagascar government and these materials, which have been filed in federal court, show that the wood seized in 2009 was legally exported under Madagascar law and that no law has been violated.”

This year’s raid seems to be about wood from India. The Justice Department “has suggested that the use of wood from India that is not finished by Indian workers is illegal, not because of U.S. law, but because it is the Justice Department’s interpretation of a law in India,” Gibson explains. “This action,” the company hastens to point out, “was taken without the support and consent of the government in India.”

In other words, if the U.S. government thinks a U.S. company has violated a foreign law in the course of importing wood products, it then charges (or at least raids) that company under the Lacey Act, confiscating the company’s property and fighting tooth and nail to retain it. This happens whether or not the United States’ interpretation of the law agrees with the foreign country’s interpretation of it and whether or not the foreign country has made a formal request to the U.S. government to charge the company with a violation of its law.

Gibson, for its part, seems to have gone out of its way to comply with the Lacey Act, making sure that its wood complies with Forest Stewardship Council standards, which include ensuring that wood is harvested legally. In addition, the company has kowtowed to environmentalist heavyweights such as the Rainforest Alliance and Greenpeace. One would think this would gain the company some favor in Barack Obama’s Justice Department, but apparently not.

In an August 25 press conference Gibson chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz calmly but forcefully condemned the government’s actions and maintained his company’s innocence. The raid itself, he said, was “extremely troubling. What is more troubling is that the Justice Department’s position is any guitar that we ship out of this facility is potentially obstruction of justice and could be followed with criminal charges.”

Juszkiewicz noted the irony of conducting such an assault on Gibson at a time of high unemployment, saying the company had “hired over 580 American workers” over the past two years. “We are one company manufacturing in the United States that’s hiring people,” he added, “and yet the government is spending millions of dollars on this issue.” Should the government triumph over Gibson, it would end up forcing the company’s wood to be finished in foreign countries instead of in the United States, thereby depriving some Americans of employment in favor of foreigners.

“We feel totally abused,” Juszkiewicz remarked. “We believe that the arrogance of federal power is impacting me personally, our company personally, and its employees here in Tennessee. And it’s just plain wrong.”

Big importers like Gibson aren’t the only ones who have reason to find these raids troubling. The Journal reports that “musicians who play vintage guitars and other instruments made of environmentally protected materials are worried the authorities may be coming for them next.”

If you are the lucky owner of a 1920s Martin guitar, it may well be made, in part, of Brazilian rosewood. Cross an international border with an instrument made of that now-restricted wood, and you better have correct and complete documentation proving the age of the instrument. Otherwise, you could lose it to a zealous customs agent — not to mention face fines and prosecution. …

It’s not enough to know that the body of your old guitar is made of spruce and maple: What’s the bridge made of? If it’s ebony, do you have the paperwork to show when and where that wood was harvested and when and where it was made into a bridge? Is the nut holding the strings at the guitar’s headstock bone, or could it be ivory? “Even if you have no knowledge — despite Herculean efforts to obtain it — that some piece of your guitar, no matter how small, was obtained illegally, you lose your guitar forever,” [Quinnipiac University law] Prof. [John]Thomas has written. “Oh, and you’ll be fined $250 for that false (or missing) information in your Lacey Act Import Declaration.”

Thus, on top of all the unconstitutional environmental laws the federal government enforces, it is now attempting to enforce, at its own discretion and in excruciating detail, all other foreign countries’ environmental laws, even when those countries do not believe their laws have been violated.

Given this policy’s negative effects on Americans’ liberties and livelihoods, we may all be strumming the blues soon — probably on guitars made in countries with less overbearing governments than the one that presumes to lead the free world.

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2 thoughts on “FEDS RAID Gibson Guitar Facilities (Memphis/Nashville)

  1. Gibson’s prior Madagascar ebony and rosewood issue of the November, 2009 raid is one thing, but this new problem (August 24, 2011 raids on 4 locations) with Indian rosewood and ebony fingerboard blanks is another. It seems that India has regulations banning wood exports of anything over 6mm thickness unless it’s been worked beyond simply “sawn wood” inside their country. But it’s not possible to have India process fingerboard blanks any further into a slotted, shaped, inlaid and bound form, and the Indian Ministry of Trade is O.K. with that since the fingerboards aren’t raw lumber and actually have been worked on as far as reasonable. But the U.S. government is insisting that not going all the way makes the blanks “sawn wood” and thus illegal to export according to Indian law even though Indian authorities are fine with fingerboard blanks! Additionally, there’s been some understandable confusion with appropriate tariff code numbers; and also with having the boards drop-shipped from India to a broker and then a storage facility while being invoiced by LMII, especially since Gibson and not LMII are taking ultimate delivery. It’s bureaucratic harassment and abusive enforcement by agencies with almost total power and less than total understanding of their own regs.

    LMII has done everything possible to establish conformance with the law and provide all documents, paper trails, chain of custody evidence, etc. But now they’re justifiably worried that big white trucks and heavily armed agents will show up unannounced at their address, a scenario they might not be able to survive. Even though the U.S. instrument industry accounts for but 1% of wood use here, they seem to be getting disproportionately targeted no matter how much such harassment might endanger the industry’s survival or how many jobs could be lost.

    If these charges hold up, then virtually all Indian ebony and rosewood fingerboard blanks used in the entire industry are illegal, and everyone’s wood inventories and instruments would be liable to seizure and harsh penalties. In fact, the same would apply to all guitar woods over 6mm thick originating in India. So, I’d imagine that all the big dogs are watching this very closely – as goes Gibson, so goes the whole industry. The U.S. government is quickly making it increasingly difficult for small as well as large businesses to survive rampant over-regulation.

    What can we do to revise badly written and unworkable regulations, and stop increasingly abusive enforcement? Let upcoming electoral candidates know there’s a very serious problem that’s quickly endangering a lot of domestic businesses and killing formerly healthy small international sales, as well as negatively impacting all musicians who travel out of the country. If this could become a campaign issue which highlights some of the deeply flawed and over-regulated current federal policies and could gain public support, it’s possible to change things.

    Much of the problem has nothing at all to do with material from protected plant and animal species, but more to do with bureaucratic and regulatory demands involving non-listed species and costs that are impossibly complicated and unnecessary. In the case of genuine vintage and antique instruments (and many other non-instrument products) current enforcement practices are really nothing more than permission for federal agencies to vandalize and destroy priceless and irreplaceable objects, harass legitimate businesses, musicians, and collectors, and block many traditional exchanges between cultures.

    To address a few points which seem to be causing confusion:

    1) The issue isn’t at all about “sawed Indian ebony logs with paperwork identified as finger boards”. It’s about fingerboard blanks, and whether or not they can be considered a product involving enough native labor to satisfy the export laws of India. It’s also about a wrong (but closely related) tariff code being entered on only SOME of the paperwork.

    2) What’s an acceptable product? As the agent himself pointed out in Gibson’s search warrant affidavit, there’s a distinction between a “fingerboard” (an unfretted wood blank of rough size) and a “fretboard” (which is slotted and contains fret wire). If so, then those are two different products, and as such it’s possible to have a fingerboard blank as distinguished from simply “sawn wood” – adding slots, wires, inlays, shaping and binding would make that blank into a related but different product. In the same way, we offer flat shell blanks, veneers, Abalam® sheets, and strips made to specifications according to what their intended use is: as materials which may or may not be remanufactured/incorporated into other types of finished products such as inlays, guitars, jewelry, furniture, fishing lures, and so on. Similarly, plywood is imported as a product unto itself without it needing to be in another and more final form such as furniture, boxes, or whatever.

    To insist, as the U.S. agencies seem to be doing, that materials from India must be in their ultimate retail form is insane, especially in light of the Indian government not interpreting their own regs that way or insisting on such nonsense.

    3) Compelling U.S. citizens to obey foreign laws also isn’t the issue. The Lacey Act assumes that other entities (both foreign and domestic) know best how to manage their respective plant and animal resources, and it attempts to honor those regulations whether they be tribal, regional, state, federal, or foreign. Gibson’s ebony from India is being challenged on the basis of how our agencies interpret the laws of India, regardless of how India herself interprets them.

    4) In applying for and accepting most federal permits (such as the USFWS Import/Export Permit), the document specifically states that by signing you have agreed to have authorities examine at any time they wish your premises, paperwork, and inventory. So it’s not an issue of unreasonable search and seizure.

    What’s confusing is that in the search warrant affidavit Agent Rayfield goes to some length in distinguishing an unslotted “fretboard” from a slotted and fretted “fingerboard” (Para. 13) as found on a finished instrument, and later (para. 22) distinguishes HS 9209.92.00 as “finished parts of musical instruments”.

    He also mentions (Para. 13) that “importers and exporters have sometimes referred to the sawn pieces of wood intended to be manufactured into fretboards as ‘fingerboards’ or ‘fingerboard blanks'”. But he contends that even though these may be informally referred to as “fingerboards” they’re actually no more than “sawn wood” and being over 6mm in thickness are “sawn logs” (Para. 19 and 25) and thus a prohibited HS 4407 item (Para. 12).

    So at issue is whether or not “fingerboards” exceeding 6mm are “finished parts for musical instruments” as would be allowed under HS 9209.92.00. If not, the argument is that they’re “sawn logs” and illegal.

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  2. */satire*
    First then came for the gun owners…

    Then they came for the commercial fishermen…

    Then they came for the truckers…

    Then they came for the ranchers…

    Then they came for the Amish…

    Then they came for the homeschoolers…

    Then they came for the medical marijuana growers…

    Then they came for the unprocessed milk producers…

    Then they came for the organic farmers…

    Then they came for the land owners…

    Then they came for the guitar makers…

    Then they came for me…

    If you are anything but a fully compliant and docile serf, dutifully tending your cube and servicing your mountain of debt, if you are in any way independent of the system, you are a target.

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