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Gibson Guitar becomes cause celebre for conservatives

Republicans see the seizure of imported ebony and rosewood parts at its factories as an illustration of the need to shrink federal government.

September 27, 2011|By Neela Banerjee
  • Gibson co-owner and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz says the federal government is "bullying and harassing" his company.
Gibson co-owner and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz says the federal government… (Jeff Adkins / Chicago Tribune )

Reporting from Nashville — Two dozen federal agents outfitted with side arms and bulletproof vests strode past a display of electric guitars signed by Joan Jett and Slash of Guns 'N' Roses and quickly seized control of the cavernous guitar factory.

Some workers were caught sanding guitar bodies. Others held newly painted guitars between their bellies and cloth-covered wax wheels, gently swaying and pushing as they buffed the instrument in some kind of tuneless dance.

Turn off your machines and go home, they were ordered. Some set down their future Les Paul and Joe Perry signature guitars and obeyed.

This was a raid on Gibson Guitar.

The feds were after contraband in Gibson's Tennessee factories that day — ebony and rosewood they suspected was illegally imported from India. But their actions against the company whose guitars have been strummed by B.B. King, Bob Dylan and John Lennon netted some unanticipated results: infamy on talk radio and from commentators on the right.

Weeks later, the raid has generated publicity worthy of a rock concert. Groups like the "tea party" and the GOP, and VIPs like House Speaker John A. Boehner and Rush Limbaugh, have grabbed ahold of it as an extreme example of how government regulations are strangling American enterprise.

Republicans see the seizure of 10,000 fingerboards, 700 guitar necks and 80 guitars as an easy-to-grasp anecdote that helps illustrate their campaign to shrink federal government, roll back environmental regulations and reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Others, including a bipartisan assortment of environmentalists, a few guitar companies and a former official in George W. Bush's Agriculture Department, say the reactions to the raids have unfairly politicized an effective law. Illegally harvested wood from developing countries is undercutting the American forest products industry, they say, and causing massive deforestation abroad.

No charges have been filed, and the Justice Department and the Fish and Wildlife service declined to comment.

Gibson co-owner and Chief Executive Henry Juszkiewicz, slender and soft-spoken in his blue-striped shirt and cuff links that looked like eighth notes, accused the federal government of "bullying and harassing" his company in a corporate video. Juszkiewicz has suddenly become a popular broadcast voice and sought-after speaker among conservatives.

Boehner invited Juszkiewicz to sit with him during President Obama's jobs speech. In October, a coalition of tea party groups plan to hold a rally in Nashville backing Gibson.

"Gibson is a well-respected American company that employs thousands of people," Boehner said in a Sept. 16 speech. "The company's costs as a result of the raid? An estimated $2-3 million. Why? Because Gibson bought wood overseas to make guitars in America. Seriously."

The political attention focused on Gibson contrasts with the modest profile it has long kept in Nashville, its blocky buildings tucked into industrial parks. Inside the electric guitar factory, about 500 men and women in long rubber aprons and safety glasses work amid the sweet smell of wax and freshly cut wood in the din of machinery, making 640 guitars a day, many paid for in advance.

Federal agents were targeting wood that may have been illegally imported under the Lacey Act. First passed in 1900 to curtail contraband trade in wildlife, the act was amended in 2008, with broad bipartisan and Bush administration support, to ban illegally logged wood products.

Many in the domestic forest products industry supported it, because studies showed that illegally harvested wood from developing countries was cheaper, undercutting American companies. Environmentalists pushed for the act to stave off deforestation abroad. Since its passage, studies have shown a reduction in illegal logging worldwide.

The act defines illegal logging as activity that breaks American law or the laws of the country where the wood is grown. In Gibson's case, the government asserts that the company repeatedly imported rosewood and ebony from India that, under Indian law, cannot be exported in its unfinished, sawn state. The pieces in question are wooden slats about 20 inches long, 3 inches wide and close to half an inch thick.

Gibson said that it had imported fingerboards — the smooth wood glued to the front of the guitar's neck to form the frets — from India for years without problems. The guitar builder said such wood fits with the company's tradition of using high-quality materials.

Juszkiewicz produced a September letter from the Indian government that permits the export of fingerboards. Industry and environmental experts contend that the seized wood had not been made into fingerboards and was still unfinished, making its export a violation of Indian law.

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