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DOJ Raids Gibson Guitars looking for Illegal Wood

The Department of Justice is under fire for taking the bold step of sending armed agents into the factories of Gibson Guitar in Nashville and Memphis to seize what it believes to be illegal wood.

Via press release from Gibson:

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.

Unbelievably enough, this was not the first time that the Gibson factories have been raided for this same reason.

In 2009, more than a dozen agents with automatic weapons invaded the Gibson factory in Nashville. The Government seized guitars and a substantial amount of ebony fingerboard blanks from Madagascar. To date, 1 year and 9 months later, criminal charges have NOT been filed, yet the Government still holds Gibson’s property. 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 under Madagascar law and that no law has been violated. Gibson is attempting to have its property returned in a civil proceeding that is pending in federal court.

So why has the DOJ gone crazy for wood?  They believe they are complying with the Lacey Act, specifically, this provision:

Anyone who imports into the United States, or exports out of the United States, illegally harvested plants or products made from illegally harvested plants, including timber, as well as anyone who exports, transports, sells, receives, acquires or purchases such products in the United States, may be prosecuted.  In any prosecution under the Lacey Act, the burden of proof of a violation rests on the government. (emphasis mine)

It doesn’t seem that the DOJ has lived up to the standard emphasized above according to Gibson.  They are asserting that the Justice Department is actually trying to shut down indefinitely the civil court case that Gibson filed to have their property returned.  Given that Gibson is the premier guitar manufacturer worldwide, you have to wonder where the music industry is on this issue.

Reuters is reporting that the guitar maker is being charged with illegally importing wood under a U.S. law barring importation of endangered plants and woods.

In an affidavit, agent John Rayfield of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said U.S. Customs agents in June detained a shipment of sawn ebony logs from India.

The paperwork accompanying the shipment identified it fraudulently as Indian ebony fingerboards for guitars and it did not say it was going to Gibson, the affidavit said.

Of course there will be some back and forth apparently on the legitimacy of the case and whether or not Gibson actually broke any laws, but one thing from the press release stood out to me:

The wood the Government seized on August 24 is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier and is FSC Controlled, meaning that the wood complies with the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, which is an industry-recognized and independent, not-for-profit organization established to promote responsible management of the world’s forests. FSC Controlled Wood standards require, among other things, that the wood not be illegally harvested and not be harvested in violation of traditional and civil rights. See www.fsc.org for more information. Gibson has a long history of supporting sustainable and responsible sources of wood and has worked diligently with entities such as the Rainforest Alliance and Greenpeace to secure FSC certified supplies. The wood seized on August 24 satisfied FSC standards. (emphasis mine)

I find it fascinating that Gibson had been in compliance with a self-regulatory agency like the FSC and has also been picked on bythe government for alleged non-compliance.  I’ve always believed that self-regulation is a viable alternative for many industries that currently answer to the overreaching government.

It’s hard not to see this as the government getting territorial about who gets paid to oversee American industry.

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