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VOL. 126 | NO. 201 | Friday, October 14, 2011

Striking a Chord

Gibson Guitar raids at center of recent political gatherings

By Andy Meek

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When Texas Gov. and current Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry came to Memphis two weeks ago for a fundraiser at Memphis Botanic Garden, he didn’t immediately head to the microphone after Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey introduced him.

Jason Dawson and Steve Walker discuss the shape and fitting of guitar necks at the Gibson Guitar factory in Downtown Memphis. 
(Photo: Kyle Kurlick)

Perry purposefully walked over to the guitar player in the corner of the room.

“Let me come over here and make sure … yeah, that’s what I thought that was,” Perry said, his voice rising. “God bless you, that is a Gibson guitar! … And you tell the government, keep your hands off my Gibson!”

It was one of several recent examples of how the high-profile raids of Gibson facilities in Memphis and Nashville at the end of August remain a politically potent symbol. Supporters view the raids of Gibson by federal agents – apparently searching for what they believed was illegally manufactured wood – through a prism of government overreach, a view widely shared by hundreds of people who attended a rally in Nashville last week in support of the guitar maker.

A movement also is afoot to use the Gibson raids as an opportunity to push back against illegal wood harvesting.

Guests for the “We Stand With Gibson” event in Nashville Oct. 8 included conservative radio talk show hosts, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, who told the crowd, “We’re going to fight the injustice and unfairness together” and “We will make sure other people and other companies do not face bullies with guns.”

Meanwhile, musicians in Madagascar held a concert in that country a week before the pro-Gibson rally to speak out against illegal logging. During a raid of Gibson facilities in 2009, federal authorities seized wood items that had parts originating from Madagascar.

The company said its wood was properly exported from that country.

More recently, federal agents executed four search warrants at Gibson facilities in Memphis and Nashville on Aug. 24. They seized several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars.

Attention since then has centered around the Lacey Act, a piece of federal legislation that provided the backdrop for the Memphis raids.

Adjuster Jim Briggs tests the playability of a guitar after stringing it at the Gibson Guitar factory in Downtown Memphis.
(Photo: Kyle Kurlick)

“We need a fair playing field,” said Mark Barford, executive director of the Memphis-based National Hardwood Lumber Association, during a recent conference call organized by the consulting group Climate Advisers. “Our small, little companies cannot compete with artificially low prices from wood that comes in illegally.”

In a recent letter to congressional leaders including Blackburn, federal officials wrote that the Lacey Act is an effective enforcement tool with which to combat “widespread deforestation.”

Meanwhile, the legal fight is raging on – both in public and behind the scenes. Gibson is pushing back via everything from a social media campaign in support of the guitar maker to the appearance last month by Juszkiewicz at President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on a jobs program.

Later this month, the Memphis lawyers chapter and the University of Memphis law student chapter of the Federalist Society will host law professor John S. Baker Jr. for a discussion titled “The Federalization of Crime: A Look at the Case of Gibson Guitar and Beyond.”

At a forum with lawmakers in Washington this week, Juszkiewicz said the various costs associated with the raid – legal fees and finding new materials to replace items taken by agents, for example – has topped $3 million.

Even so, Gibson disclosed within the last few days that it has hired Washington law firm Crowley & Morley LLP to lobby for the company.

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