Gibson Guitar case drags on with no sign of criminal charges

It was seven months ago that federal agents with guns drawn raided the Gibson guitar factories in Nashville and Memphis.  A half million dollars worth of Indian rosewood and ebony was seized under the premise that it had been imported illegally. The feds also took a number of guitars and computer hard drives.  The factory was shut down for the day and employees told to go home.

Yet after all this time, the Department of Justice has shown no sign that it will file criminal charges against Gibson.  What’s more – it has been almost 3 years since federal agents first raided Gibson (November 2009), seizing a quantity of wood from Madagascar.  No decision on criminal charges in that case either.

Meantime, the DOJ has blocked a civil court case in which Gibson was appealing to get its wood back while the criminal investigation proceeds.  Or doesn’t.

Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz complains that being in legal limbo with the federal government has had a profound effect on his business.

“While we are waiting to even get charges”, he told Fox News, “they have taken very aggressive action that has hurt our company significantly.  And we have no recourse at this point.”
Some former federal prosecutors contacted by Fox News say it’s not unusual for a case – particularly an environmental one – to take a while before a charging decision is made.

But Michael Mukasey – Attorney-General in the last Bush administration says this case should have been decided on long ago.

He told Fox News, “Certainly three years since the 2009 raid and even, going on a year since the 2011 raid is more than enough time.  This is not brain surgery.”

Federal agents seized the wood under suspected violations of the Lacey Act, which governs trade in endangered plants and animals.  Since the raid last August, several federal lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat have moved to make amendments to the law to bring more clarity to its application regarding musical instruments.

The intention of the Lacey Act is twofold.  To protect endangered species of wood overseas and to protect American forest product companies from unfair foreign competition.

Since there is no domestic source of ebony or rosewood, and the Indian woods are not endangered, Gibson claims it is being unfairly punished by an improper application of the Lacey Act.

“We’re a domestic manufacturer”, says Juszkiewicz.  “There are many manufacturers in China who don’t have the same issues to deal with.  And so we’re at a competitive disadvantage and long term, you know – our business will suffer.  And possibly quite severely.”

Fox News contacted both the DOJ and Fish and Wildlife Service (which conducted the raids).  Both had “no comment” on the investigation or the length of time that has gone by without a charging decision.

Former A-G Mukasey says the government is enforcing its own interpretation of Indian law – while the Indian government sees no need for an enforcement action.

“It’s not fair and it’s not smart either”, Mukasey told Fox News.  “The first rule when you go out to enforce a law is engage your brain.  And obviously somebody failed to do that.  And then somebody else decided that they would support whoever failed to do that.”

Unable to import any more Indian wood, Gibson ran out of what it had left in December.  Since then, they have had to switch to less desireable alternative sources, or alternative products – including composite materials, which many purists reject.  Juszkiewicz fears his company may lose market share as a result.

Gibson has reached out to the DOJ with a proposal to settle the case.  While Juszkiewicz would not disclose the contents of the offer, he did acknowledge that returning the seized wood is part of the deal.

So far, Gibson has heard nothing from the government.  One way or another, Juszkiewicz says he would just like to know what is going to happen.

He told Fox News, “You can’t just muck around with somebody’s business forever and not have deadlines and some formal process.”