Is Fed Raid on Gibson Guitar Company Enforcing Policy . . . or a Push to Target 'Made in the USA'?

They are among the most sought-after musical instruments in the world. Everyone from Chet Atkins to Les Paul to Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin to Slash of Guns n’ Roses played them. A vintage 1959 Les Paul guitar can go for as much as $400,000. Almost every kid who has dreams of music stardom wants a Gibson guitars.

Gibson is also a company that is proud to put the “Made in the USA” label on its instruments. While the company has lower-end lines that are made overseas, every guitar that bears the “Gibson” label is made in the U.S. by American workers.

On August 24, armed agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Homeland Security raided the corporate headquarters and two factories of the Gibson Guitar company. The agencies took away 24 pallets of Indian rosewood and ebony, as well as a number of guitars and computer files.

The federal agents’ contention is that Gibson had illegally imported the exotic wood, which is used to make fretboards and bridges for their high-end instruments. Under the 1900 Lacey Act, which was amended in 2008 to include wood products, American companies must abide by the laws of source countries when importing products. The intent of the law is to protect endangered species of wildlife and plants. U.S. Fish and Wildlife claims that the Gibson wood – in the form of fingerboard ‘blanks’ -- was illegal to export from India and therefore illegal to import into the United States.

Now here’s the rub. While the feds say the wood – as imported – is illegal, had it been ‘finished’ by workers in India, it would have been perfectly legal to import. The wood itself was not banned, just the manufacturing process – or lack of it.

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“I think they’re taking the position that we should be shifting these jobs overseas,” says Bruce Mitchell, the chief legal counsel for Gibson. “We have – probably 40 people in our factory here just at USA who are doing the inlays into the fingerboard … that are putting the fret on. If all that was to be done over in India, then …. those jobs would be lost.

What’s most puzzling about this case is that India is perfectly happy to ship the fingerboard ‘blanks’ to the United States. In a letter dated July 13, the deputy director general of foreign trade for India confirmed that “fingerboards made of rosewood and ebony is (sic) freely exportable.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife offered no comment about the discrepancy. But people involved in the import and export of musical instruments and parts believe the US Department of Justice offered its own interpretation of Indian law. Even though India saw no reason for an enforcement action, the U.S. did.

“It is such an outrageous position – it has hurt Gibson tremendously – has criminalized Gibson and its workplace and its workers. It is an unsustainable position that they’re taking,” Mitchell says.

Something else to consider in all of this: Gibson uses the same wood, from many of the same suppliers and importers that nearly every other guitar company in America does. And they have not been targeted. You might ask – why?

Rewind the clock two years. Gibson was raided in 2009 and a shipment of rosewood and ebony from Madagascar was seized. Gibson argued that the wood was obtained through proper channels, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife argued that Gibson could not adequately prove that the wood came from legitimate sources. Again, the issue of ‘finishing’ the wood came into play. Had Gibson imported finished parts from Madagascar instead of ‘blanks,’ it would have been perfectly legal.

No charges have been filed as of yet, and Gibson is fighting in court to get its wood back.
It could be that the Madagascar issue put Gibson front and center on the Department of Justice's radar screen.

There was a discrepancy in the import of this latest shipment of wood. It was listed with an improper tariff code, which the importer, Luthiers Mercantile International of Windsor, Calif., claimed was a clerical error by a junior employee and tried to clear up. But rather than talk to the importer and Gibson about it, the Justice Department dispatched U.S. Fish and Wildlife and DHS agents to raid the Gibson compounds.

Gibson feels it has been unfairly targeted. “We are being singled out. Very much so,” says Mitchell. “Every music instrument company in the United States uses rosewood fingerboards. Period. And they’re in the same state – they’re buying from the same suppliers, they’re using the same shippers.”

Gibson has also been working hard to maintain proper sources of wood, working with the Forest Stewardship Council to insure its suppliers are certified. Gibson also works closely with the Rainforest Alliance on sustainable supplies of exotic woods. It’s a no-brainer for Gibson and other guitar manufacturers. If they can’t get the highly sought-after tone woods that artists crave, they just might go out of business.

Outside observers see a more sinister possibility in all of this. Henry Juszkiewicz, Gibson’s CEO, is a Republican, who has contributed to Republican candidates (as well as some Democratic candidates). Other guitar companies, which have not been targeted, are led by Democrats. Is there a political motivation to all of this? Neither Mitchell, nor Juszkiewicz will offer an opinion, but consider what Juszkiewicz told Neil Cavuto on "Your World."

“You know we've been pretty low key. We're a guitar company. We've been manufacturing guitars. We've been involved in the environmental movement. We’ve been trying to do the right thing in terms of sourcing. We really don’t know why they are picking on us.”