Okay, so my brother is hard at work putting the finishing touches on a fine guitar and suddenly he is surrounded by Federal Agents. He dutifully raises his hands and is marched off… to the break room, where all the employees including my bro are told they can skedaddle. Uncle Sam had declared a national holiday for Gibson employees. Here is how the Wall Street Journal puts it.
Federal agents swooped in on Gibson Guitar Wednesday, raiding factories and offices in Memphis and Nashville, seizing several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars. The Feds are keeping mum, but in a statement yesterday Gibson's chairman and CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, defended his company's manufacturing policies, accusing the Justice Department of bullying the company. "The wood the government seized Wednesday is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier," he said, suggesting the Feds are using the aggressive enforcement of overly broad laws to make the company cry uncle.
It isn't the first time that agents of the Fish and Wildlife Service have come knocking at the storied maker of such iconic instruments as the Les Paul electric guitar, the J-160E acoustic-electric John Lennon played, and essential jazz-boxes such as Charlie Christian's ES-150. In 2009 the Feds seized several guitars and pallets of wood from a Gibson factory, and both sides have been wrangling over the goods in a case with the delightful name "United States of America v. Ebony Wood in Various Forms."
I'm sorry, but is ebony or rosewood really "Fish and Wildlife"? Never mind. I understand that an illegal traffic in certain commodities such as "ebony wood in various forms" is something that the U.S. government and other governments wish to discourage. This week's raid didn't seem to be about that, however. I haven't been able to find any statement about the purpose of the raid from the agents of Fish & Wildlife & Ebony Wood in Various Forms, so I will have to make do with this statement 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.
If that is true, this looks like a labor issue and it looks very fishy. Is it really the business of the Justice Department to enforce laws in India in the absence of some treaty or some request by the Indian Government? I would like to know something more about the warrants.
The Gibson statement has more.
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.
I don't know what the U.S. Government has against Gibson, but there is surely something wrong with seizing Gibson's valuable property and holding it indefinitely without further legal action to justify the seizure.
As the WSJ notes, Gibson is a maker of iconic guitars. All over the world Gibson guitars are coveted by players both famous and aspiring. Collectors line their private museums with Gibson guitars. Maybe the Justice Department has better things to do that trying to drive one more American manufacturer overseas. Or maybe I am wrong, and this is part of the Obama Administration's jobs agenda.