Government has no other end, but the preservation of property.” — John Locke
Federal Agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raided factories and offices of Gibson Guitar in Memphis and Nashville on last Wednesday, seizing wood pallets, electronic files and guitars.
The Wall Street Journal reported last Friday on this highly “aggressive enforcement of overly broad laws to make the company cry uncle.” The Journal reports that the raid this past Wednesday was not the first time that agents of Fish and Wildlife came after Gibson guitars.
Gibson is already fighting a federal lawsuit that stemmed from a 2009 federal raid, but this raid seems to have upped the stakes. As the Journal described the ongoing case:
“The question in the first raid seemed to be whether Gibson had been buying illegally harvested hardwoods from protected forests, such as the Madagascar ebony that makes for such lovely fretboards but with the new raid, the government seems to be questioning whether some wood sourced from India met every regulatory jot and tittle.”
The real issue here seems to be the bureaucratic minutia of federal environmental regulations that increasingly pervade all aspects of American life. Environmental regulations cover your home, your business, and now even your guitar. To lay out the over-regulation in this case, the Journal quoted John Thomas, a law professor at Quinnipiac University, who described the enormous burden of proof on guitar owners to show they aren’t carrying endangered wood:
“”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.”
Certainly, the dedication of federal resources for the harassment of a private musical instrument producer reinforces already negative perceptions about the Obama administration’s hyper-regulatory environment.
Now the tale of the Gibson guitar raid — the one focused on the legendary guitar maker’s alleged importation and use of illegal wood — has taken an odd turn. Now CEO Henry Juskiewicz is claiming the Feds told him that some of his problems “would go away” if the company used Madagascar labor.
In an interview with KMJ 105.9 in Fresno, California, Juskiewicz told host Chris Daniel that the government made the point “explicitly:”
CHRIS DANIEL: Mr. Juszkiewicz, did an agent of the US government suggest to you that your problems would go away if you used Madagascar labor instead of American labor?
HENRY JUSZKIEWICZ: They actually wrote that in a pleading.
CHRIS DANIEL: Excuse me?
HENRY JUSKIEWICZ: They actually wrote that in a pleading.
CHRIS DANIEL: That your problems would go away if you used Madagascar labor instead of our labor?
HENRY JUSKIEWICZ: Yes, yeah. They said that explicitly.
That’s an interesting charge. But what is it all about? Well, Juskiewicz is not referencing the latest raid, but rather a similar raid that occurred in 2009 when authorities confiscated ebony fingerboard blanks and accused the company of importing them illegally. According to Juskiewicz, those accusations are false.
Gibson 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 and that no law has been violated,” the company says in a news release.
So why the comments about Madagascar labor? The latest raid may offer some insight. In the most recent case, the Feds say Gibson violated the U.S. Lacey Act by importing wood from India not finished by Indian workers. But Gibson says the Lacey Act only applies if foreign law has been violated, and it hasn’t been in this case:
“The Federal Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. 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. (If the same wood from the same tree was finished by Indian workers, the material would be legal.) This action was taken without the support and consent of the government in India.”
That could then explain the alleged comments by the Feds that Gibson could avoid problems by outsourcing labor to Madagascar: if workers in Madagascar finished the wood then — considering the DOJ’s interpretation of the law — there would be no problem.
It isn't just Gibson that is sweating. Musicians who play vintage guitars and other instruments made of environmentally protected materials are worried the authorities may be coming for them next. According to the Journal article:
“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.
John Thomas, a law professor at Quinnipiac University and a blues and ragtime guitarist, says "there's a lot of anxiety, and it's well justified." Once upon a time, he would have taken one of his vintage guitars on his travels. Now, "I don't go out of the country with a wooden guitar."
The tangled intersection of international laws is enforced through a thicket of paperwork. Recent revisions to 1900's Lacey Act require that anyone crossing the U.S. border declare every bit of flora or fauna being brought into the country. One is under "strict liability" to fill out the paperwork—and without any mistakes.
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," Prof. Thomas has written. "Oh, and you'll be fined $250 for that false (or missing) information in your Lacey Act Import Declaration."
Consider the recent experience of Pascal Vieillard, whose Atlanta-area company, A-440 Pianos, imported several antique Bösendorfers. Mr. Vieillard asked officials at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species how to fill out the correct paperwork—which simply encouraged them to alert U.S. Customs to give his shipment added scrutiny.
There was never any question that the instruments were old enough to have grandfathered ivory keys. But Mr. Vieillard didn't have his paperwork straight when two-dozen federal agents came calling.
Facing criminal charges that might have put him in prison for years, Mr. Vieillard pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of violating the Lacey Act, and was handed a $17,500 fine and three years probation.
Given the risks, why don't musicians just settle for the safety of carbon fiber? Some do—when concert pianist Jeffrey Sharkey moved to England two decades ago, he had Steinway replace the ivories on his piano with plastic.”
Given the risks, why don't musicians just settle for the safety of carbon fiber? Some do—when concert pianist Jeffrey Sharkey moved to England two decades ago, he had Steinway replace the ivories on his piano with plastic.
Still, musicians cling to the old materials. Last year, Dick Boak, director of artist relations for C.F. Martin & Co., complained to Mother Nature News about the difficulty of getting elite guitarists to switch to instruments made from sustainable materials. "Surprisingly, musicians, who represent some of the most savvy, ecologically minded people around, are resistant to anything about changing the tone of their guitars," he said.
You could mark that up to hypocrisy—artsy do-gooders only too eager to tell others what kind of light bulbs they have to buy won't make sacrifices when it comes to their own passions. Then again, maybe it isn't hypocrisy to recognize that art makes claims significant enough to compete with environmentalists' agendas.”
Perhaps the next victims of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Anne-Sophie Mutter, or Isaac Stern with their Stradivarius or Guarnerius violins. What will happen if they leave the country with their million dollar violins and then try to reenter? Will they be asked for a certificate of the wood used by the famous 18th century violin makers? What happens if they do not have the “proper” certification documents? Will the violins be confiscated and the great musicians fined or imprisoned? I doubt Holder would go that far as such a case would become a Cause Célèbre bringing too much attention to his tyrannical and incompetent justice department.
There may be another reason why the Feds are harassing Gibson. The Gibson Guitar Company with facilities in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Montana (all right to work states) is a non-union operation. Perhaps this is Eric Holder’s way of attacking a non-union firm to grant an advantage to one of Obama’s union buddies. Just like Boeing’s plans to open a plant in South Carolina and his support of the union rioters in Wisconsin.
This is yet another example of the tyranny being imposed by Obama’s statist government officials. We have the coercive tyranny of the Department of Education, the Department of Labor through the NLRB, the EPA with its onerous and job killing regulations, and the Department of Justice with its legal actions against Arizona and Alabama over their policies towards illegal immigrants. And now we have the Department of Interior joining the club of tyrants with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Either way, the raid has been costly on the American business that employs about 2,000 people. According to Juskiewicz, “my personal guess is somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million to $3 million.”
That’s a lot of money considering the Feds have yet to file charges in the 2009 case.
Given the current economic climate, and the recent Obama administration decision to de-prioritize deportation of illegal immigrants in a way that appears to many as backdoor amnesty, the case against Gibson is raising many eyebrows.