Gibson And The Feds Will Talk Soon – And The Background Story

Gibson CEO Talks Federal Raid

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Gibson CEO Talks Federal Raid
Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz Talks About The Federal Raid

Gibson CEO To Meet With The Feds

First for the latest news – the US Justice Department has (finally) requested a meeting with the owners of Gibson Guitars. We might see some answers come out of that. There has been significant pressure from an inquisitive Congress demanding answers as to why the Gibson factory was raided – specifically on August 24th, 2011 .

Also, the Fish and Wildlife officials will be briefing the House Energy and Commerce Committee soon as well.

Here’s the skinny on this slightly confusing story

I’ve been following this story since it began, and I’ve noticed some confusion so I’ll try to draw together all the lose ends on this story for those of you who have heard little bits and are trying to determine how you feel about all of this.

Here’s a quick summary of how this story unfolded.

Back in 2009, Gibson was raided for the first time by federal officials when they suspected that the guitar manufacturer was illegally importing Madagascar lumber – specifically a protected Ebony. No Charges were ever filed as a result of that investigation, although the wood that was confiscated at that time still has not been returned.

Fast forward to this August the 24th – another armed, surprise raid by the Feds, only this time it was claimed that there was suspicion of illegally imported rosewood from India. Still, nearing a month later, no charges have been filed.

Gibson was then forced to file a suit in federal court to get their wood back (valued somewhere in the $3 million range), which was met with more stalling – the government has requested an indefinite stay on the case.

What are the specific laws in question, and who are the enforcing agencies?

The specific law is the century old Lacey Act. In this case, the enforcing agency was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Law makes it illegal to import, export, transport, sell, or receive any plant based material that is in violation of any U.S. or foreign laws, except in specific situations, with proper documentation.

What’s the problem? (Why are people upset?)

The main gist of the problem that’s got folks upset is three-fold. The way in which the Feds are conducting their investigation, the fact that the laws are being interpreted on behalf of a foreign government who hasn’t asked for any help with this, and the message that is apparently being sent to U.S. manufacturers who use wood products.

In the more recent raid on Aug. 24th, the question arose from the Fed’s interpretation of an Indian law that the government of India apparently doesn’t even care about.

The Rainforest Alliance has clarified this law:

… 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.

So every plant based product (wood being one) must adhere to this law, as well as any laws from foreign countries related to that material – even if the U.S. company didn’t know about the foreign law.

In the case of the Indian wood, the U.S. Government asserts that in their interpretation of the Indian law, any wood imported from India that is not “finished” by workers in India is in violation of said law. There seems to be some question on the interpretation of the word “finished”. The wood was fashioned into fingerboard blanks. Is that finished?

Interestingly, the Indian government did not support or consent to the raid on Gibson.

The Lacey Act, established in 1900, updated in 2008 to enforce the foreign laws regarding wood, leaves a lot open to interpretation.

Many people feel that a foreign law was interpreted incorrectly by the Feds under the Lacey Act, at the very least in a way that leaves much question, or “reasonable doubt” as to its validity. Some feel that it’s wrong that the U.S. Government is interpreting and enforcing laws of a foreign country regardless of whether or not the country in question feels their laws have been broken.

Some also say that this will encourage U.S. companies like Gibson to send their work overseas in order to comply with the Feds’ interpretation of the laws, at a time when the U.S. economy and job market needs that like a hole in the head.

Also fanning the flames is the fact that after two raids, and two years since the first, no charges have been filed.

Of course, Gibson is upset as well – you can see our coverage on his 30 minute press conference in response to the situation here (with video).

What IS compliance, then?

That’s a question that has a lot of guitar manufacturers scratching their heads right now. If the U.S. Government can seemingly arbitrarily interpret foreign law regarding woods, even down to the detail of what constitutes a finished fingerboard, how can a guitar manufacturer know for sure that they are in compliance, and safe from a similar situation?

What’s Gibson’s track record regarding the import of woods?

Gibson seems to have an excellent record of adhering to the Lacey Act, making sure that all of their wood is imported legally. They’re also known for supporting organizations like the Rainforest Alliance and Greenpeace.

How are guitar owners reacting? Should you be worried?

Video: Many guitar owners are worried.

The law does state that guitar owners can be asked to account for the composition of their guitars when re-entering the U.S. from abroad. Even with vintage instruments. The Lacey act is retroactive on this point.

While this is an unlikely scenario, it’s got some vintage guitar owners a bit concerned, because the guitar in question could be confiscated. For instance, Brazilian rosewood was used in almost every guitar Gibson made prior to 1970. Since 1992,  the harvesting of Brazilian rosewood isn’t as legal as it was then, but guitar owners don’t want to risk their precious vintage guitar with that uncertainty.

Showing a bit of support for worried guitarists, U.S. Representative Jim Cooper, a democrat whose district includes Nashville, is planning to propose an amendment to the Lacey Act which will “grandfather” guitars built before 2008, so this doesn’t become a problem for the average travelling guitarist.

It’s an interesting “case”.

There are certainly areas where it feels like Gibson is being bullied, and strung along with no answers. The silence of the U.S. Government isn’t helping matters any either. Of course they can’t comment on an ongoing investigation, but the length of time taken to perform this investigation – for an entity the size of the U.S. Government is another factor that’s just increasing the rumors and the frustration of those involved directly or indirectly.

It’s possible and probable that the government has more information than we know about, but what is it, and is it any more condemning than the information we have been presented with thus-far?

We’ll have to wait and see.

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Tim Monaghan

Tim has been playing guitar & bass since he was 12 years old and has been in Jazz, funk, rock & metal bands. Influences include Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke, Doug Stegmeyer, Baden Powell, Steve Vai, and pretty much anyone else who has a unique style that expresses their individuality. One of Tim’s many hobbies is building, tweaking, and repairing basses and guitars.

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Dave MacLeod
11 years ago

It is nice, for a change, to read something balanced and informative that doesn’t jump to conclusions or attempt to promote a political agenda.

There are a couple of other interesting details – particularly about how Gibson investigated exporting “grey market” ebony from Madagascar after their coup in 2008 when most other US guitar makers broke trading links.

The other key fact you miss, is that the current investigation is nothing to do with Gibson breaking foreign laws. The consignment of timber was mis-labelled. Gibson and LMII assert that it was a clerical error – the feds, that it was done deliberately to conceal its true nature.

Bottom line is that the feds need to sort it out quickly and either charge them or return the confiscated materials.

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