It wasn’t an unfamiliar sight two weeks ago when federal agents mostly from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rummaged through Gibson Guitar Corp. headquarters in Nashville — as well as other company locations, including in Memphis — and later left with pallets of Indian wood, guitars and computer files perceived as evidence in an ongoing federal investigation into the import practices of the luthier.
In November 2009, agents executed similar raids on Gibson facilities, during which they seized guitars and fingerboards made from Madagascar ebony used to produce the company’s iconic instruments.
As Gibson again finds itself butting heads with the federal government, its case has sharpened the focus on a now three-year-old law that broadened the scope of import/export regulations meant to combat illegal logging that has industries involved in the wood (or plant product) trade scrambling to sort out the nuanced details of regulations and declaration requirements.
Tucked away in the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, also known as the Farm Bill, was an amendment to the Lacey Act, which was first enacted in 1900 as an answer to the illegal trafficking of wildlife, fish and plants. The 2008 amendment broadened Lacey to include more restrictions on plants and plant products, particularly focusing on the import, export, buying, selling, transportation, etc., of such products whether in either U.S. interstate or foreign trade.
The amendment brought along a tangle of red tape in new declaration requirements (phased in incrementally) on wood and other plant products entering the country, requiring among other information the scientific plant name, its value and the wood’s country of harvest. It’s illegal to falsely record or declare a plant product, and it is a violation under the amended Lacey Act to import or export any such products if they are harvested, purchased, transported, etc., in violation of federal, state or a foreign country’s laws.
In Gibson’s case, Chairman and CEO Henry E. Juszkiewicz told The City Paper an “overreaching and bullying” government has victimized his company through the two raids without yet filing criminal charges. The government is relying on its interpretation of other countries’ laws under the Lacey amendment to single out and go after Gibson, Juszkiewicz charged.
Gibson’s troubles following the 2009 raids focused on shipments of ebony, a high-quality wood used to make necks and other guitar parts, exported from Madagascar following a supply chain through Germany, into the U.S. and eventually to Gibson. The company claims the wood it received (and is still trying to recover from the feds) was properly documented and imported according to the laws of Madagascar. In court filings, the government states that Gibson exported the unfinished product, in alleged violation of Madagascar law, to finish the product according to its own standards.
The raids on Gibson Aug. 24 hinged on Indian ebony, a standard resource for stringed instrument makers, which the government claims was fraudulently classified under an improper tariff code allowing its export from India.
U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin said his office doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations.
Aside from Gibson’s troubles and the determination of what the company knew about its import supply chain and when, various industries — musical instrument manufacturing, furniture making, paper printing, etc., — and the groups that support them are working to make sure all involved are onboard with the confusing regulations.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a co-sponsor of the Lacey Act, declined to comment about the ongoing federal investigation.
“Gibson Guitars is a good citizen of Tennessee — an important part of our music industry,” Alexander said. “If there’s anything about the Lacey Act that causes Gibson a problem, I will look at changing the law or improving it in the future so that the company can get the wood it needs to make guitars.”
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said the federal government “should not overreach or be heavy-handed in its enforcement efforts” of the 2008 Lacey amendment.
“I voted against the law then and am worried that the Lacey Act, if too broadly interpreted, could harm guitar players and the entire industry,” Cooper said. “Other musical instruments are also at risk.”
Mary Luehrsen, director of public affairs and government relations for the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), said Gibson’s situation is a matter of concern for “the entire music products industry.”
“It’s just raised an enormous [number] of questions, which we’ve tried to create some more clarity and guidance around,” Luehrsen said, adding that because some products contain many different plant material elements — “we’ve had to go back to the regulators for lots of clarifying requests.”
While some importers scrambled to recheck their supply chains, Luehrsen said NAMM is working with its members (some 9,000 strong) along with the government to clarify what products (both those made before and after the 2008 amendment) are affected by the regulations. Compliance education for those affected by the amendment is a key goal for NAMM, which has worked to get the word out through webinars and other postings on its website.
The Environmental Investigation Agency is another group that now finds itself involved in the educational outreach. The EIA — an independent, private-sector group that investigates the illegal logging trade — not only was a driving force behind the passage of the 2008 Lacey amendment but also was partly responsible for the investigation that led to the 2009 Gibson raids, according to Anne Middleton, forest campaigner for EIA.
The EIA released its own statement in the wake of the most recent Gibson raids, asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “to issue further statements in order to help calm the confusion and concern generated among many companies and individuals in the musical instruments industry, other businesses and the media.”
One of those concerns, which has spread across the online debate in the wake of the Gibson action, is that musicians traveling internationally may be forced to accurately declare the location of origin of the ebony, rosewood or whatever “plant product” makes up the various parts of their beloved stringed instrument companions — at the risk of having them confiscated by customs. In its release, however, the EIA states there is no indication the government is out to get musicians but rather is focused on stemming the illegal logging trade.
Gibson’s fate trudges along in the federal court system in Nashville. In July, the government hinted at what could be coming down the pike when it filed a motion to put the civil forfeiture case against the ebony seized in 2009 on hold so as not to “adversely affect the investigation and the prosecution of a related criminal investigation,” according to the motion.
Juszkiewicz contends the raids against his company are politically motivated, as other major musical instrument manufacturers that also use ebony and rosewood fingerboards aren’t falling under the same scrutiny as Gibson.
“Everybody uses [those materials] that I’m aware of,” he said, “and we are being singled out.”