Gibson Guitars are some of the best known instruments in the business. However, the company could soon make some interesting law as well after it was raided by federal agents investigating possible violations of the Lacey Act, the law barring the illegal trade in wildlife, fish, and plants. The company is being investigated for the allegedly unlawful importation of sawn ebony logs from India. This is the second time in two years that the company has been accused of Lacey Act violations.
In November 2009, federal agents seized guitars and fingerboard blanks that were allegedly made from illegally harvested Madagascan rosewood and ebony. Last week the agents seized several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars. From a Reuters report the latest raid is related to a shipment of sawn ebony logs from India that was imported by Gibson illegally, violating the Lacey Act.
Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz insists that the raid is simply because the wood was finished in the United States and is based on Indian law being enforced in the U.S. The company released a press statement saying “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.”
The Lacey Act does enforce the laws of other countries to prevent companies from using the United States for trafficking in illegal goods. Ironically, the Act was originally passed to stop the destructive sale of our own domestic resources (particularly bird feathers) but has become a law protecting the natural areas of other nations from the same threat. The Lacey Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 3371–3378) was the brainchild of Iowa Rep. John F. Lacey, who wanted to block the trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, transported or sold. It was signed into law by President William McKinley on May 25, 1900.
Thus, it is not in anyway odd for the U.S. to enforce the law of another country. Moreover, the affidavit below claims a series of false or misleading statements in the documentation related to this shipment. The agent details what is alleged to be “fraudulently” labeled wood that is an attempt to evade an Indian ban on exports of unfinished wood.
The affidavit below details what is a classic Lacey Act violation with both the content of the shipment and the recipient. Regardless of Juszkiewicz’s politics, this shipment would have been flagged based on these allegations.
It does appear that, if the wood were finished in India, this might not be a violation under Indian law. Moreover, it is the type of violation that can easily occur if you do not use a local attorney to verify such questions. However, it is also true that companies often claim ignorance of local laws will supporting unlawful shipments of wood and other items. The point is that purchasing companies are equally responsible when they import unlawful goods. In my view, the 2009 allegations, detailed in one of the articles below, present a more serious concern in the importation of the wood from Madagascar — an area that has been ravaged by illegal harvesting and corruption.
Conservative bloggers and radio hosts have suggested that this is political retribution for Juszkiewicz’s support of conservative candidates. Gibson appears to be fueling the political allegation with Twitter postings to conservatives.
One report says that either Juszkiewicz or the company is warning that people who now have Gibson Guitars could see their instruments seized by the government. It is a clever tact to work up citizens but it is highly unlikely. It is true that purchase or possession of unlawful material is prohibited under Lacey. The act makes it unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase any fish or wildlife or plant taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law, treaty, or regulation of the United States or in violation of any Indian tribal law whether in interstate or foreign commerce. Yet, it is rare to see actions taken against individual owners of prior sold products like a guitar. The focus of enforcement is on those in the stream of commerce, particularly shippers, manufacturers, and retailers.
Juszkiewicz objects that his employees are being treated like “drug dealers” though his own relations with his employees may need from fine tuning. The company has also been named in 2009 as the number one “worst to work for” in a survey by glassdoor.com.
Here is the statement of the Federal Agent: 20110819154237897