The Gibson Guitar saga is bar none the strangest and most intriguing tangle of events I have followed in my 26 years covering the woodworking industry. The image of gun-toting federal marshals swooping down on a wood products plant, especially one of Gibson’s renown, is surreal to say the least.
And the story is still unfolding.
On Wednesday, September 21, Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz is scheduled to meet with federal officials to discuss the November 2009 and August 24 raids of Gibson's manufacturing plants in Memphis and Nashville.
Also in the next week or so, officials of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service are to meet with members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which recently demanded to be briefed about the Gibson investigation.
Authorities of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which received court-ordered search warrants for both of the surprise law-enforcement actions, alleged that Gibson violated the Lacey Act in each case. In 2009, federal authorities seized ebony wood, parts and guitars that they suspect were illegally harvested in Madagascar's rainforest. In last month’s raid, Gibson allegedly was in possession of Indian rosewood that had been mislabeled with incorrect tariff codes. The feds say the confiscated wood did not comply with India’s laws requiring that wood be subjected to a certain level of value-added processing before it could be exported.
Juszkiewizc has made numerous public appearances and interviews declaring Gibson's innocence and demanding that the investigations be dropped and his company's property be returned. While I can’t say whether or not Gibson did wrong in either or both cases, it is important to note that while the government is holding wood, components, products and computer hard drives valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, no charges have yet to be filed in either case.
The Lacey Act and Unintended Consequences
In November 2007 I wrote a column on the Combat Illegal Logging Act sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). The measure amended the century-old Lacey Act, which banned the importation of endangered plants and animals to include wood. Widen introduced the bill as a response to a study that indicated Oregon’s plywood and flooring industries were being decimated by lower-priced Chinese imports, much of which was suspected to come from illegally harvested sources.
Shortly before his illegal logging bill passed as part of a massive Farms Appropriation Bill, Wyden, said, ““Illegal logging has been giving timber and timber product exports from countries including China an unfair advantage over U.S. companies that are following the rules. This bill will help level the playing field for American manufacturers, protect the jobs of the workers they employ and address an illegal logging crisis.”
What does the sentiment expressed by Wyden then have to do with how the Lacey Act is being enforced in the most recent raid of Gibson Guitar?
It’s hard to suspect that Wyden, other members of the then-Democrat majority Congress or President George Bush, who signed the measure into law, considered that the amended Lacey Act could lead an armed raid on wood products manufacturer, not because wood was suspected to be illegally harvested, but because it may have been too thick at 10mm as opposed to the maximum 6mm allowed by India law.
One would assume that if a U.S. company violated another country’s law that it would want to prosecute, but to date that hasn’t been the case with India.
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) recently announced that he plans to introduce legislation to amend the Lacey Act to make the law easier to understand and to make sure that any musical instruments, including Gibson Guitar made before 2008, be grandfathered. This makes sense to help Gibson and other U.S. businesses that import wood and wood products to more readily know what is required to be in compliance and to safeguard musicians who might own instruments that do not comply that were purchased before the Lacey Act was amended.
It remains to be seen what the coming weeks will bring. Will the feds back down and drop charges against Gibson or will they press charges and make Juskiewicz stand trial and potentially face time in prison?
Only time will tell, but rest assured, whatever the outcome I’ll be paying close attention and urge that everyone else in the wood products industry do the same.
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