Does Gibson Guitar’s playing the victim chord stand up to scrutiny? 

Guns N' Rosewood

Guns N' Rosewood

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To sympathetic observers, there was a simple explanation for the raid: Juszkiewicz must have donated more money to Republicans than to Democrats. That theory was advanced by Fox News, which, according to the watchdog website Media Matters, was the only mainstream news outlet that injected partisanship into the story. In a Sept. 15 blog post, the website reported that "Fox largely omitted important background information that sheds light on why Gibson may have been targeted. Fox also linked the story to narratives about the Obama administration, regulation and jobs — in line with Congressional Republicans who have incorporated the Gibson case into their broader criticisms of the administration."

It's still a compelling theory, except for one problem: Juszkiewicz's political expenditures don't support it. Contribution records obtained from Open Secrets show that Juszkiewicz has donated equal amounts to Tennessee politicians from both parties, including Cooper and Blackburn. Over the last seven years, he has given $23,000 to the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade organization and lobbying group that spends lavishly on Republicans and Democrats alike. In 2006, the year the GOP reclaimed the House of Representatives, the CEA spent $57,300 on Republicans, versus a mere $29,000 for freedom-hating socialist Nazi wusses. But in 2008, the year of Obama's election, the association turned about and devoted a whopping $91,500 to Democrats, while doling out only $69,000 to GOP candidates. Currently, in the run-up to the 2012 cycle, this supposedly Republican-friendly lobbyist group has already given more to Democrats ($31,500) than to Republicans ($23,000).

That did not stop Gibson's transformation into a conservative cause celebre, as Rep. Marsha Blackburn invited Juszkiewicz to be her guest on Capitol Hill during President Obama's so-called Jobs Speech of Sept. 8.

"Gibson Guitar is at the heart of this jobs debate, and is an example of exactly why President Obama has it wrong when it comes to getting our economy back on track," Blackburn said via prepared statement in advance of the speech. "Maybe if the president spent more time finding real solutions to empowering small business owners and less time hindering businesses like Gibson, we'd see more new jobs being created."

Juszkiewicz was so warmly received by Congress that his story even elicited a few words from House Speaker John Boehner. In his own jobs speech, delivered Sept. 15 to the Economic Club of Washington, Boehner railed against the hurtful regulatory effects of import laws upon businesses such as Gibson.

"Those excessive regulations are making it harder for our economy to create jobs," Boehner said. "Over the last couple of months we've seen two vivid illustrations. Last month, federal agents raided the Gibson Guitar factories in Tennessee. Gibson is a well-respected American company that employs thousands of people. The company's costs as a result of the raid? An estimated $2 to 3 million. Why? Because Gibson bought wood overseas to make guitars in America. Seriously."

By "excessive regulations," Boehner referred specifically to a recent amendment to the Lacey Act of 1900, one of the nation's first conservation laws. Not only did the amendment bar the removal of any plant or plant product from another country, it expanded the federal government's ability to enforce the original legislation. It was passed by congressional override via the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (aka the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill) despite a veto by President George W. Bush.

Among the legislators who voted for the override — and thus laid the legal groundwork for the Gibson raid — was Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the guest of honor at the Gibson rally. In another blow to the liberals-gone-wild conspiracy theory, the U.S. attorney of the Middle District of Tennessee who initiated the 2009 raid on the company was Ed Yarbrough, a Bush appointee. But those facts have been hard to hear above the drumbeat of corporate victimhood.

"What they did to Gibson Guitars is so illogical, so anti-American, so contrary to the claims of creating jobs. They shut down a globally revered American craftsman," Ted Nugent told Lou Dobbs on a Sept. 21 broadcast. "And you know, Lou, I'm just a guitar player, but let me know how I would have done it if I heard that maybe Gibson had some illegal wood. I wouldn't get an armed raid like I was going after some child rapist or murderers or drug runners, of course, then we'd have to arrest the ATF. What I would do is I would call Gibson and say, 'Hey, can I come down and look at your receipts? I hear you got some bad wood.' Can you believe the depth of abuse and the outrageous assault on freedom and positive forces in this country?"

But if you want real abuse and assault on freedom and positive forces, you have to look past the political hyperbole and travel 9,300 miles to the source of Gibson's blues.

In many ways, the island nation of Madagascar is 225,000 square miles of Tea Party ideals realized. Located off the southeastern coast of continental Africa and straddling the Mozambique Channel, Madagascar has been rocked by turmoil for the past several years, culminating in a series of violent anti-government protests in early 2009 that have destroyed any semblance of centralized political power. The net effect has allowed powerful interests, particularly those involved with the country's multimillion-dollar illegal logging trade, to effectively circumvent forestry regulations and reduce the role of government to a mere subsidiary of private power.

So complete is the logging industry's control over the country that a 2009 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nongovernmental organization that monitors crimes against wildlife and the environment, details the January 2009 burning of a government building allegedly orchestrated by so-called "timber barons." The building in question was the Ministry of Environment and Forests — Madagascar's equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency.

As a poverty-stricken country with little in the way of abundant natural resources, Madagascar's exports are typically concentrated in two areas: vanilla and precious woods. Since the 2008 worldwide economic meltdown effectively collapsed the prices for vanilla, the country has witnessed a heavy uptick in the amount of illegal logging that occurs in flagrant violation of weakly enforced anti-logging measures. Those measures were enacted due to rapid deforestation, which according to National Geographic has caused the loss of more than 90 percent of Madagascar's original forest cover since humans began to settle the island 2,000 years ago. Regulations now strictly limit which entities can harvest the wood and which cannot.

In theory, Madagascar's government authorizes controlled harvesting of ebony and rosewood timber, as part of cleanup initiatives following typically devastating monsoon seasons. But the EIA found that in practice, the process for issuing logging permits is so royally mismanaged that they're often falsified.

"During the time lag between the suspension of issuance of old permits and the award of new extraction agreements through bidding, a number of questionable wood harvest authorization forms were used by loggers, forms bearing titles not found in any legal text," the report states. "These questionable permits were not based on any management plan or inventory, and allowed timber traders to undermine regulations."

With no government oversight, no workplace regulations and no pesky minimum-wage laws to encumber the free hand of the market, more than $900,000 worth of ebony and rosewood is harvested daily in Madagascar by dubious means, and in broad daylight, according to the EIA report. Workers receive pay worth less than 2 percent of the overall export value for a hard day's exploitation. The net effect undermines native wood refining and manufacturing industries, as the harvested wood is exported to China, Europe — or in Gibson's case, the United States.

The wood stock in the 2009 raid consisted of unfinished ebony planks. The company uses these to make a variety of products, primarily fretboards. In an interview with federal prosecutors, obtained by the Scene via public records from the U.S. attorney's office, Madagascar's former Director General of Forests Gerald Rambeloariso said that virtually all wood exported from Madagascar in 2009 was illegal, due to a cutting ban passed by the government in 2006.

Furthermore, Rambeloariso told authorities, Juszkiewicz's man in Madagascar, exporter Roger Thunam, would have knowingly received illegal wood on behalf of his client, German importer Theodor Nagel — who then knowingly relayed the wood to Gibson's Red Arrow storage house in Nashville.

"First of all, it's up to Thunam to know [the 2006 regulation]. If they don't know, they go to the embassy to us," Rambeloariso said. He added that it would be very easy for them to find out — assuming they cared to know.

Court documents allege that Gibson knowingly violated the Lacey Act as well. According to an affidavit filed by federal prosecutors in 2008 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, Gibson wood specialist Gene Nix was privy to "information relating to the Madagascar law on the illegality of the exportation and importation of harvested ebony wood and that he was made aware of the prohibition on its export. Despite this information, in 2009, contraband ebony wood contained in the defendant property was exported from Madagascar via Germany to Gibson in the United States."

Gibson claimed that the wood was in a finished state, and thus in accordance with the law. But in legal documents filed with the U.S. attorney's office, prosecutors describe Thunam's Madagascar factory as "nothing more than a few people with a table saw and clearly incapable of making a finished product such as a fingerboard."

Regarding the 2011 raid, an affidavit was filed in U.S. District Court by U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent John Rayfield alleging that Gibson intentionally mislabeled pallets of Indian rosewood and ebony in violation of the Lacey Act as well as Indian trade laws. Rayfield's affidavit also sheds light on the recent August raid that, unlike the 2009 seizure, sparked Tea Party rancor.

Rayfield testified that the illicit cargo in question — 1,250 planks of Indian rosewood — entered the United States this year through Dallas in late June. The listed importer was, once again, Theodor Nagel. But the shipment's recipient was listed as Windsor, Calif.-based Luthiers Mercantile, even though the goods' point of destination was listed as Nashville. The unfinished wood was also falsely listed as being finished, and it was delivered, again, to Red Arrow storage — a solid 2,300 miles from Windsor.

All of this damning information is available in the realm of public documents. But Juszkiewicz has moved beyond handling Gibson's troubles with public relations. Now he's trying to change the law itself.

Last week, the company hired Washington, D.C., law firm Crowell & Moring to lobby on its behalf for changes to the Lacey Act that would allow companies to reclaim properties seized by government raids. Crowell & Moring grew to prominence in the '90s as legal counsel for Philip Morris and, more recently, represented private military contractor Blackwater Worldwide in an investigation over a May 2007 shooting in which 17 Iraqi civilians died. Currently, the firm represents several military contractors, including DynCorp International, which was accused in a 2001 lawsuit by a former United Nations Police Force monitor of participating in human trafficking in Bosnia (and was the subject of a 2007 inquiry by the inspector general of the Iraq reconstruction for the squandering of a $43.8 million State Department contract).

Closer to home, Crowell & Moring made headlines recently when it said a study showing a correlation between mountaintop removal mining and Appalachian birth defects failed to take into account "consanguinity" — i.e., inbreeding, which brought the firm an avalanche of anger. After that lapse in PR finesse, maybe the firm should be hiring Henry Juszkiewicz.

Back at the rally, the first musical act to take the stage is renowned Tea Party songmeisters Rivoli Review, whose lineup consists of husband-and-wife duo Kay and Ron Rivoli. Made famous for their nativist hit "Press One for English," the band — Ron on guitar, Kay on vocals, and an invisible drum machine compensating for the lack of anybody else — has written a special song for Gibson in its time of need. They've chosen to debut it here, atop a stage in a parking lot in Nashville among the faithfully gathered.

It's a surprisingly soulful country number that includes references to a number of guitarists who've employed Gibson guitars over the years, from Slash to Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Page. And while some might argue its message is a little challenged on the facts ... well, it just sounds good.

"It's a Gibson that we're playing, it's a Gibson that we own," Kay croons. "It's a travesty of justice what's happened to this guitar-lovin' man. It brings jobs to the working man, and music to a country girl like me."


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